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Know what to do when hiring or firing your personal injury lawyer
Attorneys, like everyone else, are bad at breakups.
Just like real life, the breakup might come out of nowhere – or it might creep up on you, with the attorney dodging your calls and ignoring your emails. For whatever reason, your lawyer might need to drop your case, and you need to be prepared for when and if it happens.
Why might my attorney drop my case once it’s started?
There are a number of reasons why this could happen.
- He thinks he won’t make enough money. Personal injury cases are done on a contingency basis, which means he doesn’t make money unless you do. They generally accept a third plus expenses, and expenses are usually paid out of pocket first and then reimbursed by the settlement. That is a lot of money up front, so if the settlement doesn’t seem large enough to be worth his while, he might drop it entirely.
- He’s overworked. If he’s a solo or small-firm attorney, he might be buried under a huge number of cases and could have overestimated his ability to take on new clients.
- He doesn’t have enough resources. He might not have the capability to handle larger cases like interstate motor vehicle accidents or a case with multiple depositions in several jurisdictions. This is no excuse for how he’s handled your file, but it does explain his conduct. You would be better off bringing your case to a larger firm or an attorney with more availability.
- He’s dealing with personal matters. Just like everyone else, attorneys are people. They have families and demands upon their personal time. Marriage, children, divorce and illness all touch upon your lawyer’s life and can truly impact a firm’s ability for success. If your attorney is going through a mid-life crisis after a harrowing divorce, he probably isn’t going to be focusing much on your car accident case.
- He’s not a great attorney. You might not have picked a good one from the bunch. There are many ways to vet an attorney, and we highly recommend using several different methods before moving forward with an attorney you choose. However, sometimes even the most well-intentioned of us can miss a bad apple, and then you’re stuck with a sub-par attorney who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
- It could be you. There are times in life when self-reflection is needed, and this might be one of them.
Keep in mind that there’s a difference between a lawyer dropping your case because he’s overworked and a lawyer firing you mid-case without notice.
An attorney cannot abandon a client right before a court date, for example, unless the withdrawal will not hurt the client or there’s a replacement waiting. He would need to file a Motion to Withdraw and have it approved by the court, arguing that you were enmeshed in a criminal enterprise and trying to use him to further criminal endeavors, or you were refusing to pay legal bills, or you were refusing to listen to legal advice or something along that line.
Those are either mandatory or voluntary withdrawals, and that is an entirely different story.
Why would I want to fire an attorney?
Conversely, there might come a time when you want to initiate the breakup during the ordinary course of business. There are plenty of reasons why you’d want to fire an attorney.
- Your personalities do not gel. While you don’t need to be best friends in order to get a personal injury settlement, you at least have to sort of like the person you’re working with. If you’re not comfortable with your attorney, you can choose to let him go and forward your files to another lawyer.
- You don’t trust your attorney. The attorney-client relationship is built upon mutual trust, so if that fundamental principle has eroded, then you have to reevaluate. What caused the trust to crumble? Was it a lack of respect from the start? Did it disappear over time? A sit-down might be necessary so the two of you can hash it out.
- You can’t reach your attorney despite repeated phone calls, emails, voice mails, etc. Constant unavailability is unprofessional.
- Further clues he’s not on the ball. You start receiving notices from the court about missed deadlines for filing notices and your attorney starts requesting time extensions without good explanations (and without it having been your request).
- Sloppiness. Your attorney sends you forms with errors, misspellings or someone else’s information in the documents.
But should I fire my attorney?
How much can you put up with? How much should you put up with?
You have to consider how much work your attorney has already completed and at what stage of the process you are.
Your attorney will need to be compensated for his out-of-pocket costs before you leave, and that will be paid out of your pocket.
Are you closer to the beginning, when not much has been completed and fees have not begun to pile up? Or are you closer to the middle or the end? Your attorney will need to be compensated for his out-of-pocket costs before you leave, and that will be paid out of your pocket.
Remember, you haven’t gotten a settlement yet, so there’s no guarantee you will ever get that money back.
It helps to speak with another attorney before making any drastic decisions
She can help you see the bigger picture. Is it the court system making things difficult, or is it the defense team? If things aren’t moving as quickly as you’d like, that unbiased attorney can illustrate why. She’s handled these types of cases before, so she will know if your lawyer’s behavior is unusual. Furthermore, she can review the way your attorney has handled the case and offer her advice.
Another thing to consider is strategy.
Maybe your attorney has been making strategic moves, but they aren’t being explained to you. Open communication is key in the attorney-client relationship, so try having a frank conversation with your lawyer and see if you can get on the same page.
If you decide that the relationship cannot be salvaged, then start looking for a new attorney. You definitely don’t want to make the jump without having another lawyer designated as a successor.
Carefully read the contract that you signed with your current attorney to make sure you aren’t violating any part of the agreement and then notify him that you want to terminate your professional relationship. It’s best to do this in a professional letter sent via certified mail because it ensures that your attorney receives the document and reads it. Make sure to include the contact information for your new attorney so that your documents can be forwarded.
Should your attorney not be forthcoming with your file or make things unnecessarily difficult for the transition to your new counsel, you’ll want evidence that you properly ended the relationship so you can make provide this evidence to the bar association for disciplinary measures.
However, most attorneys won’t do that; they value their licenses and want to serve their clients. If your well-being is best served by another attorney, your current lawyer will likely let you go without a fuss.
Make sure that all loose ends are tied up prior to sending that letter – if necessary, have a face-to-face meeting so that you can pay any outstanding fees and make sure that your new attorney won’t have an imminent deadline as soon as he takes the case.
Otherwise, hold your head up high, thank the attorney for his work and walk out that door without looking back.
Need more help finding an attorney? Check out the Enjuris law firm directory.
- Tips on finding a qualified personal injury attorney - where to look
- Choosing a personal injury attorney – interview questions
- Preparing to meet with a personal injury attorney
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.