How to Fire Your Attorney & Protect Your Legal Rights
Use our sample lawyer termination letter to end your attorney-client relationship
An attorney-client relationship is a bit like a marriage—sometimes there are irreconcilable differences. Find out whether you have the right to fire your attorney, when you should fire your attorney, and how you should fire your attorney.
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In most cases, an attorney-client relationship ends when the case is resolved.
But what happens if you feel your lawyer isn’t fulfilling their duties and you want to terminate the relationship before your case is completed?
Here at Enjuris, we understand that the decision to fire an attorney can be overwhelming and intimidating. In this article, we’ll explain when and how you should terminate your lawyer-client relationship. We’ll even provide a sample termination letter.
Can I fire my lawyer?
You ALWAYS have the right to fire a privately-retained lawyer.
If you fire your lawyer just before a hearing or trial, you’ll most likely need to file a “motion for continuance.” A motion for continuance asks the judge to change the date of the court hearing or trial to a later date so you have time to hire a new attorney. The judge doesn’t have to grant your motion. If the judge denies your motion, you’ll need to represent yourself in the hearing or trial.
Keep in mind that you may be charged for the work already completed by your lawyer. What’s more, your lawyer may require payment before they turn over your case file.
When should you terminate an attorney-client relationship?
Deciding whether to terminate an attorney-client relationship is a personal decision. Sometimes the lawyer isn’t a good fit and you’re better off moving on. Other times, the attorney-client relationship isn’t perfect but it’s strong enough to get the job done.
There are, however, certain scenarios where you should strongly consider terminating your attorney-client relationship. These include situations where your attorney clearly violated one of the ethical rules outlined in the rules of professional conduct adopted by your state.
Let’s look at some of the ethical violations that commonly lead to termination:
- Incompetence. Every lawyer has an ethical obligation to provide high-quality work. This doesn’t mean your lawyer can guarantee that they’ll win your case, but it does mean your lawyer should have the competence to represent you effectively and professionally.
- Failure to follow client instructions. As the legal expert, your lawyer typically makes decisions related to strategy, tactics, and procedure. However, when it comes to decisions that materially affect your interests (such as whether to accept a settlement offer), the decision is ultimately yours and your lawyer should abide by your decision.
- Failure to exercise diligence. The judicial process moves slower than most people would like. In some cases, there’s nothing your lawyer can do to speed up the process. However, lack of diligence and unnecessary delays in your case may be cause for attorney termination.
- Lack of communication. Your lawyer must be willing and able to communicate effectively with you. If you ask for an explanation, your lawyer should provide it within a reasonable time. If your lawyer is ignoring you, it may be time to hire a different lawyer.
- Unreasonable fees. The amount your lawyer charges for legal work must be “reason-able,” and you’re entitled to an accounting of the charges. You should probably consider firing your attorney if they’re unwilling to be transparent about the fees they’re charging.
- Violation of the attorney-client privilege. With very few exceptions, your lawyer is required to keep what you tell them confidential. If you have reason to believe your lawyer isn’t protecting the attorney-client privilege, you would be justified in firing your attorney.
- Improperly keeping your property. If your lawyer is holding your money or property, it must be kept safely and separately from the lawyer’s own funds and belongings. The failure to do so is grounds for termination.
Alternatives to terminating the lawyer-client relationship
Often, a polite conversation with your lawyer can clear up any issues between the two of you. Remember, your lawyer has an incentive to keep you (a paying customer) happy. In some cases, simply making your attorney aware that there’s an issue is all it takes to resolve the problem.
If you can’t resolve the issue after talking with your attorney, but you’re not quite ready to throw in the towel and fire your attorney, consider reaching out to your local state bar association. Most state bar associations offer free services to help clients resolve issues with their lawyers.
Tips on how to write a lawyer termination letter
If all else fails and you need to fire your attorney, you’ll need to draft a termination letter. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Always terminate the relationship in writing. Even if you fire your attorney in a verbal exchange, you should follow up by sending a written termination letter. Be sure to send the letter by “certified mail with return receipt requested” so there’s proof your lawyer received the letter. Taking these steps will ensure there’s no confusion about the status of the relationship.
- Get to the point. Your lawyer should know the purpose of the termination letter within the first couple of sentences. You don’t want your lawyer to skim the letter and somehow not realize the relationship is being terminated.
- Be firm. There shouldn’t be any confusion about whether or not the attorney-client relationship still exists after the lawyer reads your letter. Be clear and firm.
- Be polite. You should include a sentence or 2 about why you’re firing your attorney, but there’s no need to air out all of your complaints and grievances about the attorney, and there’s certainly no need to be rude. Keep in mind that the legal community is small and lawyers talk to one another. Being rude might make it more difficult to find your next attorney. What’s more, your attorney may be less likely to promptly return your file or cut you any slack when it comes to your final bill.
- Ask for a copy of your case file. If you’re prematurely ending your lawyer-client relationship, you’ll want to have your case file to show to your new lawyer.
Sample lawyer termination letter
Below you’ll find a sample of a termination letter. Keep in mind that this is a generic letter intended to give you some idea of how to write a termination letter. The form and contents of this letter won’t be applicable to every case.
January 1, 2022
123 Legal Lane
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15201
RE: Termination of Legal Services
Dear Mr. Lawyer,
I have decided to terminate our current legal relationship immediately and have accepted legal counsel elsewhere.
I am terminating this relationship because I have been calling your office for three months and have received no updates on my case status. I expect reasonable communication and sound legal advice and do not believe I have received either.
Please do not take any further action on my behalf.
I request that you send a copy of my case file immediately to the address below so that I may share this with my newly obtained legal counsel. You may send your final bill to the same address.
123 Client Circle
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15201
Should I file a complaint?
If you believe your lawyer engaged in unethical conduct, you can file a complaint with your state bar association. The state bar association will investigate the complaint and take disciplinary action against the attorney if appropriate.
Filing a disciplinary complaint accusing your lawyer of unethical conduct is a serious matter. Always try to resolve any disputes with the lawyer directly before filing a complaint.
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