It usually begins with a lack of communication. Your calls go unanswered and you hear nothing about your case for weeks or months.
Maybe you get the sense that his files are in disarray, or that she can't remember the details of your case when you attend a scheduled meeting.
First, you rationalize: "She's really busy and I know I'm not her only client. She seemed so nice and knowledgeable at our first meeting. I'm sure she's on top of things. The court system is just really, really slow."
But then you start to wonder, "Is my case getting the attention it needs from my lawyer?"
Here are some common warning signs that it may be time to switch to another lawyer:
- Your calls aren't returned within 48 hours (provided you're respectful of the lawyer's time and don't call several times a week with "just another quick question.")
- You are asked to provide documents you have already provided or to fill out forms you've already filled out. Mistakes do happen, but a good lawyer should keep organized files and be able to find all of the paperwork related to your case in one place.
- Your lawyer asks for repeated time extensions from the court without a good explanation.
- You receive notices from the court or from another party saying that a deadline has been missed or that your case is about to be dismissed for lack of activity.
- Documents you have been promised aren't ready when they're supposed to be. Everybody can have an emergency now and then, but if this happens repeatedly, there could be a problem.
If you recognize your relationship with your lawyer in these factors, make your concerns known. If you feel more comfortable in writing, write the lawyer a letter. If you prefer face to face interaction, call for an appointment.
Whichever route you go, be polite, calm and specific. List the particular instances where you think the lawyer has done something that gives you concern. Ask for an explanation, and be open-minded if the lawyer offers reasons for the lapses.
Making the Change
If you still think the relationship is unsalvageable, keep a few things in mind:
- Unless absolutely necessary, don't fire one lawyer before you have identified the next one you plan to hire. If your court case has already begun, the judge may not let your old lawyer leave the case until a new one comes in.
- Seek referrals for your next lawyer. Call your local bar association and ask for someone with the expertise your case requires.
- In most states the lawyer cannot withhold your file from you because of an unpaid bill. However, anything in the file that was created by the lawyer is considered his "work product" and he doesn't have to provide it to the new attorney. Only documents you gave to the lawyer or those the lawyer received from others have to be turned over.
- Expect that it will take a bit of time for your new lawyer to get up to speed on the case - and you will be billed for this time.
- Clients who change lawyers more than once often find they have increasing difficulty finding new lawyers to take the case. Changing lawyers repeatedly is seen by many attorneys as the mark of a difficult client or one who has unreasonable expectations.
Making the decision to change attorneys can be a painful process, but finding the right lawyer can make all the difference in the outcome of your case.