BBB Investigation: Austin law firm allegedly completes little to no work for clients after being paid thousands of dollars

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Your lawyer is supposed to have your back and look out for your best interests. But clients of Sustaita Law Firm claim they had the exact opposite experience after they hired lawyer James Sustaita.

Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin has received complaints against the law firm alleging non-completion of work. Complainants said they give a retainer fee to James Sustaita for thousands of dollars to represent them in a legal matter. Complainants said once they paid, they had little to no communication with him concerning possible court proceedings or callbacks for information on their case.

Ann Allman hired James Sustaita in July 2015 to handle her divorce after a friend recommend him. After her consultation, she said Sustaita told her the total cost would be $3,500.

“I told him I didn’t have that money,” Allman said. “We agreed that I could pay half, so I gave him $1,750 from a cashier’s check and that acted as his retainer fee.”

Allman said they agreed the remaining balance would be paid once the divorce was final. However, she states no services were ever completed. Allman said Sustaita never even filed a divorce petition, a document which begins the divorce process.

“That really put me in a bad situation financially,” Allman said. “I remember I went to his office and asked to see what had been done for my case. He couldn’t show me anything.”

In total, complainants to BBB are alleging to have lost $18,750.

BBB sent two letters to Sustaita Law Firm in order to address the complaint patterns. No response was ever received.

Additionally, Allman claims she filed a grievance with the State Bar of Texas against James Sustaita. However, the State Bar of Texas was unable to confirm the existence of a grievance due to disciplinary information being confidential unless it results in a public sanction or is filed in district court.

When looking to hire a lawyer, BBB offers these tips:

  • Understand cost and payment methods.Before hiring a lawyer, make sure you understand how you will be charged for their services. Ask for costs and fees to be broken down in writing. Some lawyers will provide you with the cost before taking your case, while others will provide costs shortly after. The American Bar Association advises lawyers explain fees within a reasonable time. The four main methods for compensating a lawyer are a retainer fee, contingent fee, established/flat fee, or hourly rate.
    • The retainer is an upfront fee you pay the lawyer that is used as a down payment for expenses and fees.
    • The contingent fee method compensates the lawyer by giving them a percentage of any money you receive from the case. The percentage should correspond with the amount of time and effort that is required of the lawyer. The size of the contingency fee is generally negotiable but check with your state’s bar association as there may be rules on maximum contingency fees.
    • An established or flat fee is a set fee lawyers charge to perform a certain service, like preparing a will.
    • The most common method is to charge an hourly rate. Lawyers generally have a set rate they charge for each hour that is spent working on the case. Hourly rates may depend on the lawyers experience and keep in mind a more experienced lawyer may charge a higher hourly rate but complete the work more quickly. Before a lawyer starts working, get an estimate in writing for the number of hours the case will require.
  • Check out the lawyer’s record. Visit texasbar.com to see if the lawyer you’re considering has any disciplinary history on their file. Be aware that the State Bar of Texas only reports disciplinary action that has resulted in a public sanction or has been filed in district court.
  • Decide on the size of the firm. Firms can vary from one lawyer to hundreds. Depending on your case, you may be better served for a small or larger firm. A smaller firm can usually offer one-on-one relationship while handling a small case. A larger firm may offer more resources and far more complicated legal issues.
  • Get a copy of your agreement. Have your lawyer draw up the agreement that includes terms, details of the services, and the client relationship. Be sure you understand any additional fees that may be necessary, such as filing and research fees. Read the agreement and be sure to ask any questions about the agreement you’re unsure of. Be sure to ask for a copy and save it. If you’re unhappy with the service given, you have a right to fire a lawyer at any time. However, you still must pay him or her for any services rendered up to the date of the firing.
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