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Sometimes you hit a bad run of luck, which is what happened to Southern Californians with homes in foreclosure who were also bilked by their lawyers. Two Orange County law firms are accused of depriving distressed homeowners of $15 million in fees in one year alone, while providing few if any legal services.
The firms -- Brookstone Law and Advantis Law, both with multiple offices in Orange County -- targeted vulnerable clients and hooked them with false promises, guarantees that lawyers ethically cannot make. So it's no wonder that the Federal Trade Commission called the firms "shark tanks" and is seeking to freeze assets, rescind contracts, bar the lawyers from practicing law, and more. Let's examine the case, reported by Courthouse News Service, and consider how to spot a fraudster.
Unfortunately, the fraudulent law firms managed to squeeze money from homeowners in foreclosure. So, people who were unable to pay monthly mortgages went out of their way to scrape up money to pay for the firms' alleged legal assessments -- an initial $895 -- followed by added costs.
Ostensibly, clients were paying for legal services and administration associated with joining lawsuits already under way against banks. The lawyers promised that they could get homeowners at least $75,000 back or more, and many clients believed it and paid. The FTC says the law firms collected $15 million in fees in just one year but did not keep clients informed about the status of cases or deposit money in trust accounts as required, apart from the questionable advertising practices. The lawyers followed few rules, it seems.
So let's consider signs of a bad lawyer and how to spot a fraudster. What signs might have made slightly more savvy homeowners more wary of shady representation?
It's sometimes infuriating to clients when their lawyers refuse to say anything with certainty. To many people it seems suspect -- how can you trust someone who won't commit to anything, not even a sentence? However, a lack of guarantees from an attorney is actually a good sign.
Attorneys are not allowed to promise certain outcomes or guarantee wins. It's a violation of ethical codes, apart from being an impractical approach to legal practice. Every case depends on details, specific circumstances, and countless factors that no lawyer, however skilled and experienced, can predict.
So, ironically, a sign of an unethical law firm is certainty: guarantees and promises beyond that of best efforts and zealous representation. A good lawyer will work hard to discover what matters in a case. One who is looking to take your money for little or nothing talks a lot and fast ... usually about money.
Consult With Counsel
If you are having legal problems of any kind, consult with counsel. Find someone whose guidance you can trust and whose advice is sound. Many attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to discuss your case.