Auto Accident, Criminal Law, Legal Practice, Personal Injury

When Can I Fire My Own Lawyer? Are You Getting The Service You Deserve?

Do you have an attorney that acts like you are wasting his or her time when you call?  Or, do you feel that you are being treated like a file on your attorney’s desk rather than a valuable client?  Are you wondering whether you should fire your attorney, or whether you are even allowed to?  Believe it or not, I hear these questions, and many more just like them, way to often for the good of our profession.

Now, before you misunderstand my tone or my point here, I am not suggesting that (a) you should fire your attorney the first time he doesn’t call you back right away, or (b) that your attorney should be answering or returning phone calls at 11:00pm on Saturday nights, or even (c) that you are the only client that your attorney has and your case should be his or her highest priority.  What I am saying is that there are unfortunate situations where for a variety of reasons, an attorney may not be providing the level of service that a client should reasonably expect.  In those cases, a client should feel comfortable in knowing that they have the right, and the ability, to change their attorney for the good of their case and for the comfort in knowing that they feel their attorney is working hard on their behalf.

The attorney/client relationship is typically an at-will employment contract, with some exceptions.  On a general level, this means that either the client, or the attorney, can choose to end the relationship.  There are some consequences or obligations involved, but generally, at either party’s whim, they can walk away.

The exceptions to this general rule almost always involve cases that are already actively involved in litigation, whether criminal or civil.  If you are deep into a case and there is a hearing in the near future, the Courts may not allow the client or the attorney to opt out of the attorney/client relationship for fear that the client may be prejudiced, or that the move is simply a ploy to slow down the proceedings.  But, in almost all other cases, in which a Court would not find prejudice from the end of the relationship, the parties can choose, either mutually or unilaterally, to walk away from the retainer agreement.

In terms of personal injury cases, which are usually contingency fee cases where the client has not paid a retainer, if the attorney fires the client, then the client generally does not owe the attorney anything.  The attorney may choose to end the relationship for business reasons, because the case is no longer viable because the evidence is not favorable, or because the potential recovery is less than the cost of pursuing the case.  In other cases, the attorney may fire the client because the client is unreasonable or the client has actually provided false information or tried to falsify evidence.  Either way, unless there is a prior arrangement, the attorney may choose to absorb any advanced costs rather than spend more money on the case when it may not be a winner.

On the other hand, when the client chooses to fire the attorney, the reason for ending the relationship become very important in terms of consequences.  A client almost ALWAYS has the option of firing their attorney for any reason, but if the reason is not realistic, the client may owe the attorney for his or her time and expenses. If the attorney has actually done something wrong and has caused harm to the client or the case, the client is likely justified in firing the attorney, and the client may not be required to pay anything.  However, if the client fires the attorney for a less than realistic reason, then the client could owe the attorney a significant amount of money depending on how much work the attorney has done in the case to that point.  For example, if your attorney has spent 6 months working to obtain medical records and police reports and preparing court documents, and you choose to fire them because they didn’t return your last phone call within 24 hours, then you likely will have to pay them for the actual cost of the records they paid for, as well as their hourly fee for all the time they spend working on your case.  These costs would likely be taken out of any recovery that you or your new attorney, should you hire a new lawyer, obtain from the insurance company.

These are things that you must take into consideration.  Remember, that you hired your attorney (hopefully) because they are good at what they do.  That means that they probably have many other clients that hired them for the same reason.  You shouldn’t be treated simply like a file on the desk, but you should also remember that if every other client called them every day and expected them to get an immediate call back, then the attorney would never get to work on your case.

So, if you feel like you, or your case, aren’t getting the attention you feel you deserve from your attorney, you need to ask yourself an important question:  Is the attorney actually dropping the ball, or am I expecting more than is reasonable?  In either case, you should talk to the attorney and point out the issues, and maybe you can come to a reasonable solution that works for both of you.  On the other hand, if the attorney truly is giving you second class service and you don’t feel comfortable working with them anymore, then do the honorable thing.  Write them an appropriate letter, notifying them that you no longer require their services and that your new attorney will be contacting them for a copy of your file.

Just remember, that while firing your attorney is your absolute right (subject to Court approval in certain circumstances) there could be significant repercussions involved, including cost to you, slowing down the case while your new attorney comes up to speed, or simply the souring of a relationship that could come back to haunt you later on.

Take all factors into consideration and choose wisely.

Note — I have been on every side of this situation.  I have represented clients who came to me after firing their former attorney, I have represented clients who chose to leave and hire another lawyer, and I have withdrawn my representation of clients due to the value or merits of their case or their honesty in giving me information.  In the end, the best way to deal with this is respectfully and honestly.  If the attorney and the client are both honest about their expectations, then when things don’t go as planned, neither party can be surprised if the other one chooses to part ways.


About jimcorleylaw

Maryland Attorney, focusing on Criminal Defense and Personal Injury cases. Centrally located in Baltimore County, near Towson.


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