Can I Change Attorneys Mid-Case?

You and your lawyer no longer see eye to eye on your case strategy, but will the judge allow you to change lawyers in the middle of your case?

In any kind of civil case, the lawyer-client relationship is multi-dimensional: part business agreement, part exercise in teamwork, and part close relationship requiring the divulging and maintaining of sensitive confidential information.

In all of its aspects, this relationship is founded upon mutual trust, and when that trust is broken it is difficult (if not impossible) for the lawyer and client to continue to work together. In some situations the lawyer wants to end representation, and he or she may be able to do so depending on the circumstances. (More: When an Attorney Must or May Withdraw Mid-Case.) This article focuses on those situations in which the client wants to change lawyers in the middle of the case.

You're Usually Free to Find a New Lawyer

In general, a client can change attorneys mid-case. The lawyer-client relationship is a product of a contract for legal services, and judges are not inclined to force clients to stay in contractual relationships against their will. So, if a client no longer believes that her lawyer is providing effective representation, she is free to discharge the lawyer and find a replacement.

As long as the client consents, the replaced lawyer can file a notice of withdrawal, and the judge will release the lawyer from any further responsibility in the case. Upon withdrawal, the replaced lawyer must return all of the client's original papers and property, and must refund to the client any unused retainer funds. What Happens to Your File When You Change Lawyers. If fees are owed to the replaced lawyer, that lawyer will be entitled to a lien on any proceeds the client ultimately receives in the case, to secure payment of the unpaid fees.

An exception to the above rule may apply when the client's desire to change lawyers is raised on the eve of or during the trial. Unless the client has a ready replacement who is prepared to immediately and seamlessly step in to continue the case, the judge may exercise his or her discretion to deny the requested change of lawyers, due to the inconvenience and prejudice this might cause for the opposing party and for the court.

...But Is It a Good Idea to Find a New Lawyer?

The fact that a client is free to change lawyers mid-case does not necessarily mean that it is wise to do so. Factors to be considered in making this kind of change include:

  • whether the new lawyer will require a retainer, and if so, how much that will cost (more: How Lawyers Charge)
  • how much time and effort it will take the new lawyer to get up to speed in the case, and
  • whether the existing lawyer-client relationship can be repaired so as to allow continuing representation.

When a lawyer is asked to start representing a client mid-case, she can expect to do a lot of work in a short period of time in order to become fully prepared to move forward. Typically, the new lawyer will ask for a substantial retainer, which will add to the client's overall legal fees, so a value determination should be part of the decision-making process.

In addition, the new lawyer will have to spend a significant amount of time educating herself about all of the relevant facts and law applicable to the case. This is work that will be duplicative of what has already been done by the original lawyer, and that will add another layer of cost. Is this cost likely to yield a sufficient justifiable benefit to the client? It's a question that needs to be given due consideration.

Since replacing a lawyer mid-case can be costly and stressful, you may want to do some soul searching to figure out why the relationship has deteriorated, and what, if any, steps can be taken to salvage it. It's usually prudent to explore all avenues of reconciliation before making the move to a new lawyer.

Learn more: How to Know When It's Time to Change Lawyers and How to Fire Your Attorney.

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