Consumer Assistance Program (CAP)
1. What CAP Can Do
The Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) helps people with questions or problems with their Tennessee lawyer. Many problems may be resolved by providing information, contacting the lawyer, or informally mediating the dispute. When serious unethical conduct may be involved, complaints will be referred to Disciplinary Counsel for consideration as to attorney discipline.
The focus of CAP is on legal consumers, but we do help lawyers through courtesy calls or letters when we hear from dissatisfied clients. CAP may also be helpful in resolving certain lawyer/lawyer disputes. Most problems with clients can be prevented by returning calls promptly, keeping clients informed about the status of their case, explaining billing practices, meeting deadlines, and managing a caseload efficiently.
CAP is a sort of clearinghouse to identify the client’s problem and find resources which may be able to help. We have an extensive list of government agencies and nonprofit organizations that provide services, including Fee Dispute Committees, Lawyer Referral Services, or a Legal Aid Society.
2. What CAP Doesn't Do
CAP deals with problems that can be solved without using formal disciplinary procedures. CAP does not get involved when a caller alleges serious unethical conduct, such as the stealing of client funds.
CAP cannot give legal advice or recommend an attorney, but can provide a list of lawyer referral services.
As we are not a court, we have no jurisdiction to act or assist with motions or petitions. Any motion or petition should be sent to the appropriate court for consideration after consulting with your attorney. Filing a complaint will not preserve your legal rights and remedies.
3. How CAP Can Help You:
- Communication Problems
"The lawyer won't return my calls," or "I don't know what's happening in my case."
We find that many complaints are a result of communication problems or misunderstandings. Most of these can be resolved by effective communication between attorney and client.
In the event your attorney is not returning your phone calls or addressing your concerns, we encourage you to contact your attorney in writing, keep a copy of your letter and send it certified mail return receipt requested. If the matter is time sensitive, you may fax or email your letter and then mail the original, again keeping a copy for your records.
The letter to your attorney should be polite and professional. The letter should let your attorney know what your “questions” or “concerns” are. Examples of this would be: “I would like to know...”, “I don’t understand...”, “Please explain...”, “When do you anticipate...”, “I have questions about my case” (then list your questions).
We find that written communication is very effective in resolving matters for a variety of reasons:
- It allows you to express all of your concerns completely, without interruption or distraction;
- It prevents many misunderstandings as to what is being requested or promised;
- It provides documentation, so that you can follow up if needed.
If your attorney does not respond to your letter within 10 days or does not respond completely, please contact the Consumer Assistance Program if you would like us to follow up with a letter of concern to your attorney. Most likely we will ask you to fax or email a copy of your letter to the attention of the Consumer Assistance Program for review. Most attorneys respond after receiving our letter, but occasionally, a “second request” is needed.
- Billing/Fee Disputes
"I disagree with my lawyer’s bill."
Fee matters are not ordinarily a basis for discipline of a lawyer because they usually do not involve questions of ethical or professional misconduct. In some cases they do, however, and in those cases where the attorney is found at fault discipline will follow.
Some fee disputes may be the result of an overcharge by the attorney. Others, however, result from a lack of understanding by the client of the basis for the fee and the factors that go into the charge made by a lawyer for services. The lawyer may be at fault because of a failure to make the client aware of what is involved. Clients are often reluctant or embarrassed to discuss fees with their lawyers. They should not be.
Where the parties are not able to reach an understanding and there is a controversy over fees, the matters, like any other dispute over the value of services, may be resolved by court action.
As an alternative action, the Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Bristol, Kingsport, Montgomery County and Washington County Bar Associations have Fee Dispute Committees which are prepared to consider complaints concerning alleged excessive fees and have established procedures which frequently lead to a resolution of the dispute. The complaints in these cases should be submitted directly to the appropriate bar association.
If you feel your attorney has overcharged you for services, we encourage you to:
Review the fee agreement, if one was signed. Check to see if the fee was a flat fee or non-refundable.
If not, ask your attorney for an itemized bill, to see what work was done. You may also request a copy of your file. If the charges seem to be for unnecessary work or work that was not done, then you should write or meet with your lawyer to work out the fee dispute.
If you're still unable to work out the matter with your attorney, you may contact your local fee dispute committee. A list of fee dispute committees is provided below.
Fee Dispute Mediation is a not a service that all Bar Associations provide, and varies from county to county. Many counties do not offer fee mediation. In such a case, you may wish to seek legal advice as to your options for filing suit for breach of contract for services not rendered.
Bristol Tennessee Bar Association
J. Paul Frye, Fee Dispute Chairman
P.O. Box 220
Piney Flats, TN 37686
Chattanooga Bar Association
The Pioneer Building
801 Broad Street
Chattanooga, TN 37402
Washington County Fee Dispute Committee
Sunny Sandos, Fee Dispute Chair
PO Box 1404
Kingsport, TN 37660-1440
Kingsport Bar Association Fee Dispute Resolution Committee
Curt Rose – Committee Chair
P.O. Box 1404
Kingsport, TN 37662
Knoxville Bar Association
P.O. Box 2027
Knoxville, TN 37901
Memphis Bar Association
80 Monroe Avenue, Suite 220
Memphis, TN 38103
Nashville Bar Association
Serving Davidson and Williamson Counties
150 4th Avenue North, Suite 1350
Nashville, TN 37219
Montgomery County Bar Association Fee Dispute Process
Montgomery County Court Center
2 Millennium Plaza, Suite 102
Clarksville, TN 37040
- Lawyer Personal Behavior
"A lawyer was rude to me!"
Such behavior is unprofessional, but it does not generally violate the ethical rules that govern lawyers. CAP may contact the lawyer to let them know that their behavior was discourteous.
"The opposing lawyer said terrible things about me in divorce court!"
Unless the lawyer makes a willful misrepresentation of fact or law, this is not an ethical violation. However, if it can be shown from the transcript and other documents that the lawyer lied in court, a complaint should be filed. If the matter is still pending in court, then sanctions should be sought from the court against the lawyer.
"My lawyer appears to have a drug or alcohol problem."
The client may contact the Tennessee Lawyer Assistance Program (TLAP) toll-free at (877)424-8527 and CAP if the behavior is affecting the attorney’s legal skills.
"I know a lawyer is engaged in illegal activity."
Personal knowledge of such activity, should be reported to the appropriate authorities. If a court has found the lawyer guilty of a crime, then a complaint should be filed.
- Case Settlements
"The lawyer got my settlement funds months ago and I still don’t have any money."
If there are any funds in dispute (legal fees or medical liens on the recovery) this may cause delay. If the client doesn’t understand the process, CAP contacts the lawyer for answers.
"The lawyer didn't pay my medical bills in a personal injury case."
The client should examine the settlement statement. Was the lawyer to pay certain bills or to disburse all the money to the client? Many times there is a lien which requires payment from a settlement. If there was a misunderstanding, CAP tries to improve lawyer-client communications.
"The lawyer settled my case without telling me."
In some cases, the client signed a release or the check, then wanted to renege on the settlement. CAP will ask the client about what they may have signed or what they told the lawyer when told of the offer.
"A settlement check on a lawyer's trust account bounced."
A complaint should be filed with the Board and the client should seek legal advice about how to recover the funds. CAP may refer the client to the Tennessee Lawyer's Fund for Client Protection (615-741-3097) to file a claim for lost funds if due to dishonest conduct by an attorney.
- Retaining (Hiring) an Attorney
"I need to find an attorney."
CAP cannot recommend or appoint a lawyer, but local bar associations and/or lawyer referral services are attached as a resource. If the client cannot afford a civil attorney, CAP can refer the client to Legal Aid organizations, where low-cost or free legal assistance may be possible. Indigent criminal defendants must ask the court to appoint an attorney.
CAP encourages the client to obtain a written fee agreement so there is no misunderstanding of work to be done, or the fee is to be charged, or how it is to be paid. Agreements for contingency fees or non-refundable fees must be in writing.
- Dismissing (Firing) an Attorney
"I want to fire my attorney."
First call for an appointment with the lawyer to try to work things out. If that fails, write a discharge letter requesting return of the file, any client property or unearned fee, and an itemized bill.
Note, that in certain types of cases, usually contingency fee cases, the lawyer may put a lien against the proceeds of the settlement.
"I’m afraid to fire my lawyer because I paid a fee up front."
Generally lawyers must return any unearned fee when they are discharged or withdraw. A possible exception to this is a non-refundable fee agreement. Ask for an itemized bill and return of the unearned fee when dismissing the lawyer.
"Can my lawyer withdraw from the case?"
Yes, most of the time. A lawyer must take steps to be sure withdrawal does not hurt the client’s case. The lawyer must generally get permission from the court to withdraw from a filed case.
"My former lawyer won't release the file."
CAP asks the client to send their request to the lawyer in writing. If this request is not successful, CAP can contact the lawyer about the file.
- Debtor/Creditor Problems
"A lawyer who represents a creditor is pestering me to pay up."
A creditor’s attorney is allowed to be a zealous advocate, but may not harass a debtor. Get legal advice on how to respond to the demand for payment, particularly if you dispute about the amount owed. Learn about the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and steps to make bill collectors stop harassment. Violations of that law can be reported to the Federal Trade Commission.
- Lawyer Neglect/Incompetence
"I want to sue my lawyer for malpractice."
Only civil courts can give a judgment for legal malpractice and award damages. Therefore, you should promptly seek legal advice or use a referral service attached as a resource.
Board procedures for ethics violations do not recover money damages. However, you may use a complaint form to report the attorney to the Board for disciplinary purposes. You have a limited time (statute of limitations) to file a legal malpractice lawsuit for damages.