William E. Swatek
Most of my reporting on Alabama attorney William E. Swatek has focused on the bogus lawsuit he filed on behalf of our criminally inclined neighbor, launching 10-plus years of legal torment for my wife and me. But Swatek's abusive actions go way beyond our case; after all, public records show he has been disciplined multiple times for ethical violations, including a suspension of his license, over roughly 30 years.
The victims of Swatek's misconduct are not always opposing parties, such as myself. Quite often, it appears, the victims are his own clients.
In fact, Swatek seems to have a special knack for behaving badly toward women he has represented in divorce cases. I've heard from several of them, and their complaints range from poor courtroom performance, to deceitful billing practices, to failure to answer questions or communicate with clients.
In at least one case, a former client says Swatek engaged in highly unethical behavior that ranges well outside the courtroom.
For now, let's look at issues regarding Swatek's performance as a lawyer. And for that, we turn to a woman who hired Swatek to represent her in a divorce case about five years ago. This woman has a good job in a technical field, makes an excellent salary, and probably will wind up OK on the financial side. But she still faced a legal bill that was way more than she had been led to expect and received a poor result in terms of child custody--and she blames much of that on Swatek.
We are talking about a woman who obviously is bright; you don't get a degree in her field without having some serious brainpower. But even she fell victim to Swatek's scam. Perhaps that will be of some solace for those of us who must deal with legal con artists while using relatively modest brainpower.
Several of Swatek's former clients have told me that he has a habit of dumping unexpectedly large bills on them at the end of cases. If a lawyer follows the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct (see rules 1.4 and 1.5), that shouldn't happen. But Swatek has been breaking ethics rules for 30-plus years, so there is no reason to think he will start following them now.
Most reputable lawyers that I'm aware of charge an up-front amount to take the case, then keep track of hours billed and notify the client when more fees might be needed. That system is supposed to avoid unpleasant surprises for the client, and if the client suddenly cannot pay, the lawyer is likely to withdraw from the case or try to work out a payment plan. Swatek, it seems, does not work that way--and that probably explains why public records show he has filed about 20 lawsuits against former clients.
Swatek apparently has a tendency to have clients pay a relatively small retainer up front and tell them that everything will be fine regarding his fees--but then he dumps a big bill on some of them at the end. My source asked not be identified, but when I mentioned what public records seem to show about Swatek's billing practices, here are her words from one of several e-mails we exchanged:
Swatek did the same with me regarding his billing. I paid him $500 when I first filed. I repeatedly asked his office for a billing statement and they assured me that everything was fine and it would come at the end. Once he even told me that most likely my ex would wind up paying for my attorney fees. When the bill came, it was over $10,000. I knew I wanted to appeal the case and felt I couldn't fight two battles at once. In order to give me my records his office insisted I pay the bill in full (which I found out later they are required to give you your records regardless if the bill is paid). I had no real choice as a deadline for the appeal was approaching so I put it on my credit card which I am still paying off.
What kind of performance did she get for her money? When I noted my impression that Swatek was lazy and disinterested in his cases, here was her response:
As for Swatek acting lazy and unprofessional in court--I had the same opinion and I was his client! I remember him sitting slouched in his chair leaning way back. He didn't really seem to be listening either. He asked the same questions over and over again, never really making a clear point. Sometimes I thought he was trying to prove arguments for them!
I've already written extensively about what it's like to be on the receiving end of a bogus lawsuit from Bill Swatek--and it's not very pleasant. Now, we are learning that it's not very pleasant to be one of his clients either.
We will have more on that subject in upcoming posts.