Common Reasons to File a Complaint Against an Attorney

The attorney-client relationship is built on a foundation of trust, competence, and ethical behavior. Attorneys are expected to handle client matters responsibly, communicate effectively, and always uphold strict professional conduct standards.

However, there are times when lawyers engage in misconduct or fail to meet their obligations. Deciding whether to file a formal complaint is significant and should not be done impulsively. There must be substantive, documented reasons to take this step.

This article outlines the common forms of attorney misconduct, the valid reasons for submitting a grievance, and the proper procedures for filing complaints against lawyers. Understanding these factors will help equip you to make an informed decision that protects your interests.

Understanding Attorney Misconduct

Attorney misconduct refers to unacceptable, unethical, or illegal behavior by a lawyer. There is a difference between dissatisfaction with your legal outcomes and justifiable grounds for discipline.

Examples of Attorney Misconduct:

  • Neglect – Failing to act with reasonable diligence, allowing statutes of limitations to expire or errors to occur due to lack of care.
  • Lack of communication – Not promptly responding to inquiries or keeping clients informed of case developments.
  • Incompetence – Lacking the adequate knowledge, skill, experience, or preparation for the legal matters they are handling.
  • Fee disputes – Overbilling for services, charging excessive fees, or misusing client funds or retainers.
  • Conflicts of interest – Failing to disclose relationships or interests that interfere with objective representation.
  • Breach of confidentiality – Disclosing sensitive client information without permission.
  • Fraud or deceit – Deliberately misleading or providing false information to clients.
  • Unethical conduct – Violating rules of professional conduct governing lawyers.

While every situation is different, there are clear standards governing attorney behavior. Upholding ethics, confidentiality, competence, and communication defines professionalism.

Understanding Attorney Misconduct

Reasons to File a Complaint

There are valid reasons to initiate grievance proceedings against an attorney. The most common involve misconduct that directly harms clients.

Breach of Confidentiality

Attorneys must safeguard sensitive client information. Unauthorized disclosure of confidential data violates trust and is grounds for discipline.


  • Disclosing strategies to the opposing counsel
  • Sharing client documents without permission
  • Publishing confidential case details publicly

Neglect or Lack of Communication

Attorneys are obligated to act promptly, keep clients informed, and provide status updates. Excessive delays or failure to communicate constitutes misconduct.


  • Allowing court dates, filings or deadlines to be missed
  • Ignoring client inquiries and messages
  • Failing to explain legal strategies or involve client in decision-making

Financial Mismanagement

How attorneys handle fees, retainers, and trust accounts is strictly regulated. Mishandling of client money is a breach of ethics.


  • Overbilling for services or expenses
  • Charging for work not performed
  • Misappropriating client retainers or settlement funds

Conflict of Interest

Attorneys must disclose any existing or potential conflicts that may affect representation. Undisclosed conflicts of interest undermine objectivity.


  • Representing a client adverse to your interests
  • Personal relationships that compromise neutrality
  • Financial ties that incentivize certain outcomes

Failure to Provide Competent Representation

Attorneys are expected to capably and diligently handle client matters. Inability or lack of preparation that jeopardizes cases merits discipline.


  • Lacking sufficient knowledge or expertise in a legal specialty
  • Declining performance from mental or physical conditions
  • Lacking effort, research, or appropriate strategies

Unethical Behavior or Illegal Activities

From falsifying documents to abusing trust accounts, serious breaches of ethics or illegal acts warrant disbarment.


  • Deliberately deceiving or misleading clients
  • Mishandling evidence or witness tampering
  • Commingling personal and client funds
  • Violating laws or regulations while representing clients

How to File a Complaint

If you have valid reasons for a grievance, follow formal procedures to submit your complaint.

Steps to Filing a Grievance

  1. Verify the timeline. Each state bar association has filing deadlines. Act promptly.
  2. Gather documentation. Have records, accounts, billing statements, emails or contracts to support your complaint.
  3. Identify violations. Note which professional rules or statutes were violated. Consult bar association standards.
  4. File with the appropriate agency. This is usually the state bar where the attorney is licensed.
  5. Fill out the form thoroughly. List key details, dates, and parties involved. Attach documentation.
  6. Keep record. Maintain copies of all materials submitted for your records.

After Filing the Complaint

  • The bar will review and investigate the grievance through required procedures.
  • You may be contacted for additional information during the process.
  • Possible outcomes range from dismissal of charges to private admonishment to full license suspension or revocation in severe cases.
  • There will be opportunities to appeal if the initial outcome is unsatisfactory.

Documentation Is Key

  • Keep detailed records related to your dealings with the attorney, including billing, payments, contracts signed, and correspondence.
  • Concrete evidence strengthens complaints and expedites investigations.
  • Witness accounts and expert legal opinions also help validate allegations.

Considerations Before Filing

Submitting a complaint should not be done impulsively. Explore alternatives and understand the implications first.

  • Will filing strain the attorney-client relationship beyond repair? Could the issues be addressed directly first?
  • Seek outside counsel’s advice about the validity of the grievance before submitting.
  • Be prepared to invest substantial time participating in the complaint process. It can span many months.
  • Weigh risks of revealing case information or strategies considered confidential.
  • Accept that the outcome may not result in compensation or remedy damages already incurred.

The decision to report attorney misconduct is a serious one. An objective assessment of improper actions, realistic expectations, and attorney guidance helps ensure appropriate complaints.


Maintaining professional and ethical legal representation is paramount. Attorneys who fail to meet conduct standards negatively impact clients and diminish public trust.

This article outlined common forms of attorney misconduct, valid reasons warranting the submission of grievances, and the formal complaint procedures. It also covered key considerations to make before taking action. Understanding these factors will lead to informed choices.

While filing complaints against lawyers is a serious matter, protecting legal consumers and the integrity of the profession remains vital. With substantive justification and diligent record keeping, clients can responsibly exercise their rights in reporting attorney misconduct. By maintaining awareness and properly channeling grievances, we uphold accountability and high ethical standards across the legal field.