Can I fire my lawyer even if they were working on a contingency fee basis?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 20, 2013

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You can always fire your lawyer. In most states the rules are that the old lawyer and new lawyer share the fees based on work done, and, if necessary, the bar association figures out the split. The bad news is, clients who fire their lawyers for what other lawyers regard as trivial matters are often seen as “trouble” by prospective new lawyers who fear that they may be complained about next. As the new lawyer gets less than a full fee because she has to share with the old, that can sometimes cause issues.

Another thing that you need to remember is that even  if your lawyer was working for a contingency fee it is possible that your lawyer will bill you for all the hours spent on the case up to the point where they were fired. Although you won’t have to pay until you receive your settlement, paying your first lawyer in this way may not leave much for the new lawyer, adding to the disincentive for any attorney to take the case.

If your lawyer is doing anything that is defined by the state’s bar as unethical, then it is time to fire them and file a complaint with the bar. Examples of unethical behavior include: offering a settlement without your approval, missing a court appearance for reasons other than an emergency, causing you or himself to be held in contempt of court, conferencing with the opposing council without informing you.

The primary thing that attorneys consider trivial is delays in contacting clients. While this may be hard to hear, you have to keep in mind that attorneys have multiple clients. In fact, some litigation or family law attorneys may be balancing over 50 clients at once. With that many clients constantly calling them for updates, you can imagine how long an update to a single client will take. Remember that you don’t typically expect to get a same day appointment with your doctor, the same is true for other professionals such as attorneys.

In the case of settlements, there may also be a delay because of procedural concerns. In the modern litigation system, once attorneys are involved, nothing is simply settled. Instead, the attorney has to offer the settlement, the opposing attorney has to inform their client and that client has to make a decision. This can take as long as 30 days, during which your attorney will remain completely in the dark as to the settlement. 

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