Nov 30, 2010 Sandra Lewis
Trial lawyers are “officers of the court” and trial bar members. When assigned a client by the court, they are expected to discharge their duties to the best of their ability and in the best interests of the clients to whom they are appointed. Should a client feel a court-appointed attorney is not working in his or her best interests, reasonable care must be taken to substantiate that impression.
It always is wise for a client to keep a key documents folder that contains a chronology of a case -- not just a troubling case but any case that a lawyer has been hired to prosecute or defend. This includes pleadings and orders; correspondence and memoranda; emails; attorney comments regarding case management, etc. Such a folder has the duplicity of an arsenal of “red flags” that can reveal poor handling of a case by court-appointed counsel. This would be manifested by client records that indicate an inaccurate recall of salient facts; unsatisfactory preparation of pleadings; no attorney-client discussions as to case management; forgetting to provide the client with copies of court orders; exhibiting unresponsiveness to client telephone calls; asking attorneys with no related expertise to appear in the client’s behalf for court calls because of a conflicting schedule.
These red flags can and should be introduced when discussing with court-appointed counsel the desire to seek new counsel. If this effort fails, the well documented client now has options to petition a judge to substitute court-appointed counsel; attempt to hire an attorney if the client’s financial status has improved in the interim; search for a law firm that handles charitable or pro bono matters; or, decide to petition the court to appear pro se. The latter is a decision that requires considerable thought. (Some but not all jurisdictions will assign an attorney to a pro se strictly for purposes of consultation, procedural accuracy and correct application of the law. Without this support a pro se appearance could prove quite challenging and troublesome.) Whatever the choice, the caveat here is none of the above options can guarantee a client a favorable outcome.
In all fairness, substituting court-appointed counsel is more of an exception than a routine practice. No attorney wants to be relieved of a case to which he or she has been appointed and probably would work overtime to rectify any errors, omissions or misunderstandings to relieve a client of having to take steps to seek new counsel. As well, such a substitution of a court-appointed attorney employed by a law firm might be viewed by that attorney's mentors and managing partners as failure unless there are extenuating circumstances. One such circumstance might be an irrevocable personality conflict between the parties. Needless to say, a personality conflict could be most unwelcomed when one's guilt or innocence is at stake.
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