Should I Replace My Lawyer?

By Brian Farkas, Attorney
Legal and practical concerns when deciding whether to move your legal matter to a new attorney.

In matters of civil law, you generally have the right to replace your attorney whenever you want to, for whatever reason. In criminal matters, you can also replace your attorney, though that ability might be subject to court approval in certain circumstances.

One important thing to realize is that, even though you hired the services of a professional, you are still ultimately responsible for your own legal affairs, and for what your lawyer says and does on your behalf. If you believe there is a problem with the service you are receiving, it may be vital to your interests to do something about it. Fortunately, you are not without recourse, as described in this article.

Having said that, firing your lawyer is a drastic step. It can slow your case, raise your total legal bills, and mean you spend time and energy getting a new person up to speed on the issues. You would be wise to think through the ramifications carefully before acting.

Identifying Problems With the Legal Services Received

Choosing a lawyer is a crucial step in the resolution of your legal matter. Whether you are a plaintiff or a defendant, or merely a party looking for counsel, the right lawyer is key. But like all relationships, the lawyer-client relationship does not always last forever. Common problems that clients report with attorneys include:

  • Poor results. The lawyer is simply not achieving the results you were led to believe he or she could achieve.
  • Bad communication. The lawyer is not communicating about crucial legal matters and decisions, leaving you uncertain of where your matter is or what's expected of you.
  • Lack of professionalism. The lawyer perhaps arrives late to meetings, doesn't remember key facts about the case, cannot find documents already provided by the client, and even forgets to submit documents by key deadlines.

In such circumstances, you should speak with your lawyer and express your concerns, both verbally and in writing, before actually terminating the lawyer. Sometimes, a simple conversation about your concerns may be enough to spring your lawyer into action or resolve a misunderstanding. Like any business, a law firm is successful only if its customers are happy!

If it's difficult for you to tell whether the problem lies with the lawyer or with the nature of your case, asking another attorney for a one-time consultation is also an option. The new lawyer might, for example, be able to assure you that the apparent slow speed of your case is typical under the circumstances; or not. Bring copies of your file for this purpose.

Disadvantages of Changing Attorneys

Just because you can change attorneys doesn't necessarily mean that you should. There are a few issues to keep in mind before you fire your lawyer.

First, consider where you are in the course of your legal representation. Is it the week before a trial, or are you in the heart of a heated negotiation? You may not be able to hire a new lawyer quickly enough to fully research and handle your matter. Your old lawyer is likely very familiar with the facts and laws applicable to your case, including clerical issues like the location of various documents. A new lawyer might not be able to hit the ground running.

Second, consider whether you have changed lawyers before on this same legal matter. Judges in particular might become annoyed at a client who is "lawyer shopping," because this delays the matter and clogs their dockets. It also suggests that you are a difficult client, or that your claims are not meritorious. While changing lawyers once during the course of a case might be acceptable if the circumstances require it, be careful about changing lawyers multiple times.

Third, consider whether a new lawyer will actually be able to create a different outcome. That is, was the old lawyer's failure his or her fault (say, due to bad communication or lack of knowledge), or was the law simply not on your side? It's possible that a new attorney will do no better than your old attorney, and the switch could cost you time and money.

Making the Change

Once you have considered these issues, changing attorneys for your case becomes a matter of your judgment. There are a few important steps you should take at this point.
  • Carefully review any retainer agreement that you signed regarding payment. The retainer agreement may have important language regarding the process for termination, as well as the return of any unspent retainer monies.
  • Notify your attorney in writing that you have decided to terminate his or her services. Be sure to mention how you would like a copy of the contents of your case file (mailed to you, to your new attorney, or provided to you in person, for example).
  • Be polite and professional in your communications with your old attorney. Remember, you will still need this person's prompt cooperation in transferring files, forwarding any straggler correspondence, and perhaps working with your new attorney.
  • Find your replacement attorney before you fire your old one. Finding a new lawyer can take time, especially if your matter is complex. You might find yourself in trouble if you have a gap in your representation.

Questions for Your New Attorney

  • Can you get my case file from my old attorney?
  • Do I need to let the court know that I have a new attorney? Will you?
  • Can you help me get my retainer money back from my old attorney?

Learn more about issues to consider if you're contemplating replacing a lawyer from the articles below.

Replace a Lawyer Articles
Replace a Lawyer FAQ's

- When You're Unhappy with Your Lawyer FAQ
- Legal Malpractice FAQ

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