Every profession has good, talented people — and then there are those who are less talented or motivated to do the right thing. The legal profession is no different. Not everyone who graduates from law school is a great lawyer, and sometimes it takes a little searching to find the one who’s right for you and your case.
Choosing a lawyer is similar to choosing a doctor or therapist. Even a great lawyer might not be a great fit for you. There could be specific issues that make the lawyer less qualified to help with your situation, but it could also be that your personalities don’t mesh well together — and that’s okay.
But if you’ve already signed a contract with a lawyer and then you feel like it’s not working out, what are valid reasons to fire your lawyer?
Let’s take a look at several reasons why you should consider a “break up” with your lawyer.
Reason #1: Your lawyer isn’t returning your calls.
Lack of communication is a big problem for some law firm clients. Yes, legal practices are very busy. They have lots of clients — not just you. However, before a lawyer signs on to take your case, they need to know if the firm has the capacity to handle it. There’s no excuse for not returning phone calls or emails within a reasonable amount of time.
Be aware that your calls might be returned by an assistant or paralegal — you might not always be able to get your lawyer on the phone. Especially if they’re traveling or engaged in a trial, they might not have a lot of time to return calls. But if they can delegate the calls to their assistants and someone is answering your questions and providing you with updates, that can suffice.
You don’t need to take legal advice from an assistant or paralegal. They should relay your question to your lawyer, and then relay the answer back to you if the lawyer doesn’t get back to you directly.
Still, you should never feel like you’re being left in the lurch or that you can’t get a response from your lawyer.
In addition, your lawyer should never be the reason why you fail to show up or are unprepared for a court date. If you’re not sure when or where you need to appear, your lawyer should provide this information to you in a timely manner so nothing slips through the cracks.
Reason #2: Your lawyer is disorganized or unprepared.
Put bluntly, is your lawyer’s behavior unprofessional?
Their time is money, but so is yours. If you have a meeting with your lawyer, there’s a good chance you took time off from work, secured childcare, or had other obligations that you changed or gave up in order to be at the meeting.
Your lawyer shouldn’t waste your time, be unprepared, or mishandle your funds or documents. Possibly the worst-case scenario is if your lawyer shows up unprepared to court because that can affect the outcome of your case or proceeding.
When you ask questions to your lawyer, they should have your file ready and organized. They should have copies of any checks you’ve written related to your case, evidence submitted or received as the result of an investigation, pleadings from the other parties (or their own), and any other material related to the proceeding. They might not have their hands on each document immediately, but they need to know where and how to locate it, whether they store items digitally or physically.
Reason #3: Your lawyer is incapable of handling your case.
What if they just don’t get it?
It takes a lot of time, effort, and studying to become a lawyer. But that doesn’t mean every lawyer understands every nuance of the law. If your case is a smaller one, it might be delegated to a newer attorney in the firm. It’s possible that person doesn’t have a strong grasp of the particular area of law that’s relevant.
The other thing that could happen is that as a case progresses, it could begin to involve areas of law outside your lawyer’s expertise. For example, what starts as a truck accident claim could become a product liability issue because of defective manufacturing of one part of the truck — and that might not be obvious when the lawyer takes on your case at the beginning.
If that happens, it’s the lawyer’s responsibility to either do the research in order to handle the case competently, or they need to get the advice of another lawyer who’s more well-versed in that area of law.
Reason #4: You disagree with your lawyer’s advice.
You retain legal counsel because you need advice.
However, the lawyer should still take your wishes into consideration.
The lawyer could be pressuring you to accept a settlement that you think is too low to cover your costs after an accident. Or, maybe you think taking a case to a judge and jury would be a good move but your lawyer is pushing you to settle.
Alternately, perhaps you want a quick settlement in order to avoid the courtroom, but your lawyer is discouraging that strategy.
Your lawyer likely knows the legal system in the community where you live, and they might have valid reasons why they think one approach is better than another, but ultimately it’s still up to you to make a decision — it’s your life, after all.
A lawyer is ethically bound to share any settlement offer with you. If the other party makes an offer, even if the lawyer knows it’s too low, they need to tell you that an offer was made.
If there’s a big decision to be made about the direction of your case, it’s reasonable to make a list of pros and cons, and talk it over with your lawyer. Your lawyer should also be able to adequately explain to you why they think you should follow their advice, and it shouldn’t be just because they want to close your case.
Reason #5: Unreasonable billing practices.
Before you hire an attorney, you’ll sign a contract that sets forth the lawyer’s fees. Most personal injury lawyers work on a contingency basis, which means they get paid a percentage of the damages you receive. However, they’re also going to charge you for additional expenses that come up while the case is in process.
You might not know upfront exactly what those fees are going to be, but when you receive a bill, the expenses should be reasonable.
For example, it doesn’t cost $20 to send a fax. In today’s world, most correspondence is by email — but even if a fax is necessary, it shouldn’t come with a hefty price tag. Likewise, a law firm shouldn’t charge you a paralegal’s hourly rate to deliver a letter to opposing counsel if it could’ve been mailed or sent by courier much less expensively. Some travel might be necessary for your lawyer to fully handle a legal matter, but there shouldn’t be a charge for a week-long stay at an expensive resort under the guise of working on your case.
Reason #6: Unethical behavior or misconduct.
Your lawyer has a responsibility to act in an ethical manner. Beyond that responsibility, they’ve actually taken an oath to uphold certain ethics.
If your lawyer has acted in the following ways, they might be breaching their code of ethics:
- Mishandling funds
- Breaking your attorney-client privilege (or confidentiality)
- Conflicts of interest
- Failing to inform you of settlement offers
- Asking you to do something that makes you uncomfortable or could be illegal
Reason #7: Legal malpractice.
Malpractice could be intentional or by accident.
If your lawyer has done anything that has cost you the ability to win or settle your case, or that had a detrimental effect on your proceeding, it could be considered malpractice.
Malpractice can also include a substantive error regarding the law or its interpretation, or a procedural error like failure to file a pleading or other document on time.
For example, if your lawyer knows when your accident happened and when the statute of limitations runs out, yet still fails to file a claim in the allotted time period, you might no longer be able to file the claim or have legal recourse.
Reason #8: Lack of dedication or compassion.
Your lawyer has a duty to pursue your legal action with zealous representation. That’s legal-speak for the concept that the lawyer should do everything that’s reasonably feasible to advocate for, or represent, their client. Almost every law student is taught about zealous representation in law school, but some might forget or become less motivated as the years go by.
The level of compassion you’re shown by your lawyer might depend on their personality, your personality, or the facts of the case. Some lawyers aren’t warm and fuzzy, but they still have an obligation to negotiate strategically with an insurance company or the opposing parties in order to get the compensation you need and deserve after an injury.
Your lawyer should not berate or belittle you, and they should not attempt to bully or coerce you into accepting a settlement or handling your case in a specific way.
If the evidence shows that the accident wasn’t the way you described it — if you were more at fault than you originally admitted, or if you weren’t truthful about the circumstances or your resulting condition — it could be difficult, if not impossible, for your lawyer to zealously represent you.
Your lawyer is also bound by the laws in your state and their code of ethics. You can’t expect them to lie, nor can you expect them to cover up evidence (or fabricate evidence). Doing so would put them in a position that could jeopardize their career, license, and reputation.
How to fire your lawyer
If you’ve determined that your relationship with your lawyer isn’t working out, or if you have other reasons why you need to hire a different lawyer, you can follow these steps to terminate your attorney-client relationship:
- Read the fine print on your contract for legal services. Find out what the termination clause says, if anything. If the termination clause includes a specific procedure for notice, timing, or anything else, follow the terms of the contract.
- Hire a new lawyer. You don’t want to be in the midst of a legal proceeding and have no lawyer, even if your current lawyer isn’t doing their job. Hire a new lawyer first, and then fire the old one.
- Write a termination letter. Any time you modify or terminate a contract, it must be in writing. Ideally, this should be a formal letter sent by certified mail to the lawyer’s office so you have proof of delivery. You must request that your file (including all documents, evidence, pleadings and other materials) is sent to your new attorney. Send full contact information for the new lawyer so that materials can be forwarded. If you paid a nonrefundable retainer fee, you likely won’t be able to recoup those funds.
- Notify the court. If your case is already filed within the court system, you (or your new attorney) will need to file notice with the court that you are now represented by new counsel. Your new attorney will file a “motion for substitution of counsel” and your old attorney will file a motion to withdraw.
If you owe money to the previous lawyer for expenses, they have the right to claim payment for those funds if they’re not being disputed. Pay off your balance immediately because the lawyer could hold your case files until they receive payment.
If you know your lawyer isn’t working for you, but you don’t have a second lawyer yet, please feel free to use the Enjuris Personal Injury Law Firm Directory to find a lawyer near you who can take your case.