California Bar Journal
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California Bar Journal

The State Bar of California


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Front Page - May 1999
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Lending compassion to a difficult situation
Legal specialist exam set Aug. 29
Board to meet June 25-26
Domestic violence group seeking volunteers
Northern California legal services board to fill five vacancies
Court statistics report now available on CD
For Y2K advice, link through bar's web site
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Trials Digest
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Hear the cries this time
A single letter, a big increase
Train time at the ABA
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From the President - Door to justice must be open
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Letters to the Editor
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Legal Tech - Litigation library great for attorneys out of office
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New Products & Services
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MCLE Self-Study
The Disabled Practitioner
Self-Assessment Test
MCLE Calendar of Events
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Ethics Byte - What to do when a client goes missing
Attorney charged with exposing clients to deportation
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Public Comment
Lending compassion to a difficult situation
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Staff Writer
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"Complaint hotline. How may I help you?"

Sylvia Curling listens intently as a caller complains about her attorney. She taps out his name and bar number on her computer keyboard and the lawyer's name pops up on the screen. Quickly scanning his discipline record, Curling shakes her head.

"He's got all kinds of stuff," she tells the caller, and outlines the lawyer's record of wrongdoing. When the caller wants more details, Curling provides case numbers and suggests the State Bar Court as the next stop.

In a nearby cubicle, Hugo Gonzalez-Valle takes a call from a client whose lawyer failed to make a court appearance. Turns out the attorney had a brain tumor, later removed, but the client still wonders if she should file a complaint.

Gonzalez-Valle sends her a complaint form, his eighth since the phones opened 90 minutes earlier.

Hugo Gonzalez-Valle listens to a caller detail the chronology of complaints against an attorney before sending the caller a complaint formCurling and Gonzalez-Valle were two of six complaint analysts staffing the State Bar's complaint hotline on a recent morning. Reopened March 1 after a 10-month shutdown, the 1-800/843-9053 number rings constantly during the four hours it is manned every day of the work week.

Thirteen analysts, including three who are fluent in Spanish, have been rehired, although 15 positions are authorized. Eleven take calls part of the time and spend the remainder of their days analyzing the thousands of complaints submitted to the bar during the shutdown. One analyst works exclusively on reportable actions, such as overdrawn accounts reported by banks, and another monitors criminal convictions.

Complaint analysts, known as "CAs" in bar jargon, are patient, polite, sympathetic and professional. The job is a combination of social work, education and customer service. Trained to know lawyers' professional responsibilities, they zero in quickly on whether an offense may lead to discipline.

At the same time, they help callers understand that an attorney's duty may not require him or her to meet every client expectation.

"A lot of them really don't understand what a lawyer does," Curling says.

This one is chronic

"He has resigned and we have no jurisdiction over him. . . . I'm not in a position to argue with you. I don't want to get into an argument about whether I'm playing games."

A chronic complainer is on the other end of Celeste Pasillas' headset. The attorney she complained about in 1992 was disciplined two years later, but the caller says she never received notice of the outcome of her complaint. From the records in Pasillas' computer, it's difficult to know the exact chronology of the case, and the resolution of every allegation against the lawyer.

She spends about 20 minutes with the caller, attempting to get as much information as possible. The caller makes a series of demands, including copies of all correspondence and records concerning her complaint, as well as a veiled threat or two, before hanging up. She calls back five minutes later and reaches another CA.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," laments Pasillas, who tried hard to reason with the unhappy client.

When the discipline operation was fully funded, Pasillas had several avenues of recourse for a call like this. Those avenues are now closed off.

"When they start alleging coverup, it makes me upset," she says. "We try to do everything on the up and up.

"All the training in the world, and I still question myself."

Establishing the chronology

"Your attorney has not been entitled to practice law since December. When did the incident occur?"

Gonzalez-Valle tries to determine the chronology of what appears to be a UPL (unauthorized practice of law) case. The caller says his attorney has performed no services, despite receiving fees in advance.

He sends another complaint form, one of 20 to 25 he will send out that day.

The first complaint Gonzalez-Valle took that morning, however, concerned a contractor dispute. He referred the caller to the Contractor State License Board.

Many of the 140,000 calls the complaint hotline receives on an annual basis (before the 1997 veto of the bar's dues bill) do not involve attorneys at all.

The CAs maintain binders listing referral agencies which handle just about every kind of consumer complaint imaginable, ranging from appliances to banks to dry cleaners.

Despite their reduced hours on the phones, Pasillas says she continues to help as many callers as possible. "If I have the information, I go the extra mile," she says. "It's hard to break old habits."

Family breakups - the hardest

"It depends on what your original retainer agreement said. Once your divorce was final, it may be that his services were complete. If your husband hauls you back into court, that's different."

Divorces are the hardest, Curling says. The caller's attorney suggested his client get a job and go out to dinner with girlfriends. "It sounds like she wants him to hold her hand," Curling says.

After telling the woman to take a moment to compose herself, Curling listens for 15 minutes and asks a series of questions. Is the divorce final? How much did you pay the attorney? Did you get a written fee agreement? Are you in arrears? Have you stated your concerns to your lawyer in writing?

She asks the caller, who has several issues with her attorney, to "make a list of things you want us to take a look at. You need to tell us what he's doing or not doing," she says. Because the client hasn't spoken to the lawyer since November, Curling suggests she "may have to do your communication by letter. That gives him time to review the file and respond to your letter."

Another caller paid her lawyer $200 in an eviction case, but wants a $150 refund. Curling tells him to ask the attorney for an accounting for his services. If he's still unhappy, she refers him to the local county bar association for a petition for fee arbitration.

Another caller is having trouble reaching his attorney in a workers' compensation matter. Curling explains that workers' comp lawyers spend a lot of time away from the office. On the other hand, she assures the caller that it's OK to search for another lawyer who would return phone calls more promptly.

The CAs don't deter callers from filing complaints, but they often explain that what may be perceived as some kind of failure might not be fodder for discipline. "Some people complain when they don't hear what they want to hear," Curling says.

Many times, though, "they are just so thrilled to have someone to talk to."

Hotline staffed four hours a day

The State Bar's toll-free complaint hotline - 1/800-843-9053 - reopened March 1. Calls are taken 24 hours a day, but currently the lines are staffed from 1 - 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Fri-day and from 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.