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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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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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You have a gripe: you’ve hired a lawyer to take care of your interests and now realize that he/she is doing a lousy job. Maybe he isn’t working on your case, settled without your authorization, overcharged. Maybe she was irresponsible, improperly dropping your case or providing incompetent services.

Can I breakup and fire my attorney?

Yes. If you are having trouble, are unhappy and it can’t be worked out, you can fire him or her, for any reason (if your case is in active litigation, the judge’s approval may have to be obtained). Do it in writing and request that your files be returned to you. Be prepared to lose any retainer you may have already paid.

Before pulling the plug and hiring a replacement, consider the following:

  1. The attorney that you fired is entitled to be paid for work already done. If you have been paying your attorney all along, and you are current, this may not be a problem. However, if your lawyer has taken your case on a contingency fee basis, the attorney is entitled to payment for the time spent on your case, plus any costs and expenses. If you have not paid your bill, your ex-lawyer can sue you for unpaid fees. Firing does not mean you don’t have to pay a bill that you have already run up.
  2. If you hire, you may be starting from scratch, as the replacement will have to get up to speed on your case, which may be an additional cost.

Can my lawyer drop me as a client?

Yes, but not because he or she is not making money, or because a better, more lucrative case just walked into his or her door, or because the matter is taking longer than anticipated. If your case is in active litigation, the lawyer can’t just hightail it out without the judge’s authorization.

Some of the most common reasons the lawyer will drop a case include:

  1. conflict of interest
  2. nonpayment of legal services already rendered
  3. client-lawyer communication: the client does not keep his or her end of the bargain.

I’m being gouged–Sticker shock syndrome

By far the top complaint of clients about their attorneys. Speak up! Ask for an explanation of the charge; be businesslike and straightforward. Errors, misunderstandings, and adjustments agreeable to both parties can be made. If there is a stalemate, read your written agreement; many require that fee disputes be resolved through arbitration.

The lawyer is not talking, at least not to you.

You’re the boss. The frequency of the contact and the form it takes will vary according to your case. Unnecessary calls (e.g., lawyer has no news to report) are costly, if you’re being billed at an hourly rate. A good way to deal with this is to write a detailed letter, explaining your disappointment, outrage, and the need for good communication. Another solution would be to ask for a written status report on some weekly or monthly basis, regardless of whether there is anything new in your case.

If the lawyer persistently ignores your phone calls, it may be time to re-evaluate the relationship. Act quickly if you decide to pursue this course of action since you want to make sure the transition is smooth.

The attorney has done next to nothing on my behalf.

Keep in mind that lawsuits move very slowly and it is not uncommon for heaps of time to pass.

That said, you have every right to be kept up-to-date on the progress and status of your case. Just how closely you need to be kept informed should be discussed up-front.

A good way to deal with this is to type a letter, keep it concise, businesslike, and to the point. But let the attorney know that that you are not pleased, that you are not being treated the way you want, and you are disappointed. Ask for a face-to-face meeting (if possible) to air your grievance and at that meeting or phone conversation, ask what has been done and what will be done.

If you still cannot resolve the matter, contact your state bar association; they will examine the charges. However, before you proceed with this course of action, be sure you have lined up a replacement attorney.

Attorney not on the up-and-up: Dealing with ethics issues

It happens. An attorney takes money from a client and never does a lick of work. An attorney bribes a juror; an attorney botches the legal work; an attorney files false papers; an attorney abandons the client. And so on, and so forth. Not all lawyers are crooks, despite the stereotype that the legal profession is infested by a thriving cult of greed and power. The vast majority of lawyers lead straightforward, conventional lives, and maintain high ethical standards.

If you feel that your attorney has in some way been unscrupulous, speak up; try to resolve the matter amicably between you. It may well be that the problem is only a failure of communication. Or get in touch with the state bar association who will advise you on how to file a grievance. The association policies its members and will investigate complaints and, if valid, will institute disciplinary action against the attorney.

My “good” attorney confided in his buddy (my cousin) some information about my case. Is that a breach of ethics?

Yes. If the attorney disclosed confidential information to his buddy concerning your case, it is a violation of his or her duty and a violation of the rules of ethics. He can be disbarred.

Malpractice suits

In law, as in every profession, there are always practitioners whose methods and conduct are subject to criticism. In law, malpractice means that the attorney, through error or omission, fails to use the same degree of care, skill, and judgment as other lawyers practicing in your community. This does not mean you can sue if another attorney beats your lawyer, or your lawyer has achieved dismal results, or is arrogant, volatile and blustery, cynical or intractable, or doesn’t return your calls. You can sue only if he or she renders work or assistance of minimal competence and you are damaged as a result. You can sue where there is a breach of ethics (e.g., a conflict of interest) or civil fraud (recovered money but didn’t pay it over).

Filing a malpractice suit differs from filing a grievance with the bar association. Among other requirements, a lawsuit requires proof and, if successful, the winner gets damages. Such cases are highly contested, strongly defended, and very expensive.

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