The lawyer-client relationship does not always work out. Sometimes this is the fault of the lawyer, who fails to communicate or fails to act with diligence on the client’s legal behalf. Sometimes this is the fault of the client, who holds the lawyer to unrealistic standards or has unrealistic expectations about the outcome of the matter.
Like personal relationships, not all professional relationships last forever. The doctor you initially appreciated because of his efficiency now strikes you as cold and brusque. The hairdresser you loved in the 1980s doesn't understand you want a more current style. And the lawyer you thought would be perfect for your case is now recommending a strategy you disagree with. How do you know when it’s time to fire your attorney, and how should you go about doing it?
When and Why to Fire Your Attorney
In most cases, clients have the ability to fire their attorneys at will. But you should not fire your attorney before giving careful thought to the timing and your reasons for doing so. Consider other possible solutions and the possible ramifications. Before taking any action, ask yourself these questions:
- Am I upset with my attorney because of something he or she has specifically done, or will the same problem exist with another attorney? For example, if you're upset because of a court ruling, or because the court system is moving your case along slowly, carefully consider whether another attorney reasonably could have gotten a different result. Similarly, if you’re asking your attorney to do something that’s clearly illegal and your attorney has refused, you'll probably encounter the same situation with a new attorney.
- Will changing lawyers be detrimental to my case or legal issue? Changing a lawyer in the middle of an active litigation is like changing pilots in the middle of a flight. It will take time for the new attorney to get familiar with the file, particularly if the case is complex. In addition to potential delays, this process might also cost you money, since your new attorney will bill you for the time spent performing that review and getting up to speed. Also consider the immediate state of your case. Is there an upcoming appearance, hearing, or motion deadline? If so, your new attorney might not have time to adequately prepare.
- Have I already changed attorneys? Courts may be suspicious if a client changes lawyers multiple times in a short period of time. Not only does this change of attorneys slow the litigation process and waste the court’s time, but it also could suggest that the client is unreasonable or worse (perhaps was hoping that the lawyer would aid in concealing important information, for example). “Lawyer shopping” can sometimes be viewed as a way that clients game the system.
Having said all of this, there are many legitimate reasons that you may want to fire your attorney. These reasons include:
- The attorney is unprofessional. For example, the attorney wastes time in meetings, does not appear to be prepared for court, seems very disorganized, or in the worst-case scenario, seems to be mishandling your funds or documents.
- The attorney does not communicate with you. An attorney who does not respond to your repeated emails, phone calls, or questions can be not only annoying, but ultimately prevent you from working as a team to successfully complete or resolve the matter at issue. You may feel like you are in the dark, constantly begging for information about the status of your case.
- The attorney doesn't understand your case. Perhaps your attorney does not seem to grasp the facts or law relevant to your situation. This might be due to the lawyer being new to the practice, venturing outside his or her primary area of expertise, or just not being as sharp as you'd like. (Not all lawyers graduated at the top of their class!) This lack of knowledge may make you feel uncomfortable, for good reason.
- You disagree about how the case should be handled. Perhaps your attorney is trying to force you to settle, when you feel the case needs to proceed to a jury, or perhaps you would like to settle quickly and your attorney is refusing to negotiate with the other side.
- Your attorney doesn't show dedication toward your case or compassion toward you as a client. Your relationship with your attorney is professional, but it is also personal. Perhaps your lawyer just doesn’t appreciate your emotional attachment to your child in a custody dispute, or doesn’t understand your involvement in your family-owned business in a merger negotiation. If you feel that your lawyer simply doesn’t understand your goals and aspirations, you are not obligated to continue to the relationship.
If, upon reflection, you think you have a valid beef with your attorney, first talk to him or her about the problem. Lawyers depend on their legal fees to earn a living, so most attorneys are motivated to do a good job and make their clients happy. Explain why you're dissatisfied, and tell the attorney what will make you a happy customer.
If you're still dissatisfied after having that conversation, then consider changing attorneys. With about 1.3 million attorneys in the U.S. as of 2015 (according to American Bar Association statistics), chances are you'll find someone you're happy with.
Steps to Take to End Your Lawyer's Representation of Your Case
Once you've definitely decided to change attorneys, there are still a few things you should do before notifying him or her of the change.
Review the written agreement or contract you might have with the attorney, sometimes called a retainer agreement. Does it address the steps to be taken to terminate the relationship? You'll want to understand the parameters of that contract as you go about changing lawyers. Your new attorney may also want to see a copy of that agreement, along with all of the files your current lawyer maintains.
Also, meet with other attorneys to explain the situation. This minimizes the delay in switching attorneys. It also ensures that you're able find good legal representation before you fire your existing lawyer. Ask whether your new attorney will take responsibility for getting your files from your old attorney, or whether you should handle that. If you are a party to litigation, confirm that your new lawyer will notify the court as to your change in representation.
When you meet with new lawyers, don’t bad-mouth your old one. Remember, the legal community can be small, and you may be speaking about someone’s close friend or former colleague. State any problems in a calm, professional manner.
When you're ready to sever the relationship with your old lawyer, send a certified or registered letter that clearly states you are terminating the relationship, and that the lawyer is to cease working on any pending matters. Don't get into details about why you're firing the lawyer; it's not relevant.
In the letter, request all of your files. Or, if your new attorney is handling the transfer of files, ask your old lawyer to cooperate with your new lawyer in this respect. Set a deadline for handing over the files, and detail how you want to receive them.
If any fees were paid in advance and the work hasn't been done, ask for a refund of the fees. Also, ask for an itemized bill listing all pending fees and expenses. If yours is a contingency case, your new attorney will pay your old attorney from any money that you ultimately recover.
The process of changing attorneys can be stressful, but if maintaining a professional demeanor while dealing with your old attorney should make things go much more smoothly.