How to Fire your Lawyer
UPDATED: June 19, 2018
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You paid an attorney a sizeable deposit to represent you, but he’s not showing up to help you with your case. The court is getting frustrated, and so are you. You then wonder, “How do I fire my attorney, who misses court appearances, doesn't file documents with the court on time, and repeatedly fails to communicate with me, etc.?” How and when you terminate the attorney-client relationship can impact your case and your finances. Written notice is always the best form of terminating the relationship. However, before you sign the termination letter, review your retainer agreement, the court’s rules, and your state bar website.
A retainer agreement is the contractual agreement between you and the attorney. Like other agreements, some will set out specific agreements about terminating the relationship and fees. As a client, you can fire your attorney at any time. You will be responsible for paying for all work done by the attorney up to the time of discharge. You should give written notice to the attorney that he/she is fired. You should also read the retainer agreement carefully to comply with terms regarding the discharge of your attorney.
If you have a lawsuit pending, make sure that you are familiar with local court rules. The court may have remedies, In addition, to those in your retainer agreement. A court can impose sanctions (fines) against an attorney who misses court appearances or fails to file documents timely. As a client, your case can be adversely affected if the attorney misses court appearances or doesn't file documents on time with the court. If you fire your attorney, make sure that the court is aware of the change in your representation so they will begin sending notices to you, instead of your attorney. After you discharge your attorney, you are responsible for handling the details of your lawsuit. The judge also has broad discretion to dismiss your case for missed filing deadlines or missed court appearances.
In addition to the terms of a retainer agreement, every attorney must comply with ethical obligations in the course of representing the client and handling the case. Missing court appearances, failing to file documents with the court on time, and failing to communicate with the client, are all examples of ethical violations for which an attorney can be subject to discipline. The rules of Professional Responsibility for attorneys are set forth by the American Bar Association (ABA) and also by the state in which the attorney is licensed. These rules by the ABA and by an individual state may have some minor differences even though they address similar concerns. Consult your state bar organization to see what remedies may apply to your situation. Depending on the nature of the problems you are experiencing with the attorney, you might want to contact the State Bar prior to firing the attorney to see if the problems can be resolved. Sometimes a call from the State Bar to an attorney results in the attorney correcting these problems. No attorney wants to be contacted by the State Bar regarding potential discipline. If your dispute with the attorney involves fees, your State Bar may have arbitration of fee disputes which may be able to assist you.
You may also want to get a second opinion from a different lawyer. Some state bars will post whether attorneys have had grievances filed against them. Before you consult a new attorney, make sure their record is clear. If you like the new attorney, they can file a “motion to substitute counsel.” Essentially, the motion terminates your old attorney’s involvement, and allows the new attorney to take over the case. The advantage of this method of termination is that you are not left unrepresented or unprotected during your lawsuit. This is especially important if you have any pending motions, like a motion for summary judgment, where timelines are very strict. A new attorney can also combine the motion to substitute with a motion for continuance so they can have more time to take care of your legal interests.