As with most legal problems, when it comes to the question of firing your attorney (or, on the other hand, being fired by your attorney), there is both a short answer and a long answer. Today, we’re going to talk about hiring and firing, and what happens when this comes up in your own case. (Obviously, it’s not exactly the ideal scenario, but… More on this in a few moments.)
Can I fire my attorney?
The short answer is yes—you can both fire your attorney and be fired by your attorney, depending on the circumstances involved. The longer answer is, as everything, more complicated.
The relationship between an attorney and a client is contractual—meaning that the two of you have signed a contract that specifically sets forth the obligations of both parties involved. Even though you sign a retainer agreement and pay a sum of money, it is terminable if either party desires it.
The best place to start is probably by reading your retainer agreement. I know it’s not exactly the most fun reading in the world, but it’s an important document (it is, in fact, a legal contract—just like your separation agreement or prenuptial agreement or custody and visitation agreement) and it explains a lot about how things are going to work between you and your attorney. It explains office policies, including how billing is handled, what minimum billing conventions exist in your office, and how communication will be handled between the attorney and client. (In our office, for example, we have a 24 hour policy between when you call or email and when you must receive a response.)
In a perfect world, you should read this agreement before you hire. Still, people don’t, so, if you have questions, this is a great place to start.
If you’re unsatisfied with your attorney, though, you can fire her (or him). Thinking about it? Start here first.
A conversation is a good place to start. Remember, no matter what you’re feeling right now (angry, upset, overwhelmed—whatever), you’ve invested a good deal of money in your attorney and, before you throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, you should probably follow the steps outlined in the blog above (click the link here if you missed it). Hiring a new attorney, especially in the middle of your case, can put you in a bad position, litigation wise. Talk to your attorney, and hear her (or his) side before you jump the gun. She (or he) may be able to talk you off the ledge by explaining things that you didn’t realize you didn’t understand.
If you’re really unhappy, or if your attorney has done a bad job representing you, you can absolutely fire your attorney. Like any other profession, we have our good eggs and bad. I won’t name any names, but I have heard some horror stories from women who were poorly represented by their attorneys.
It’s an emotional time, and you want to feel like you’re getting the best legal help there is. When you start to feel like the attorney you hired is not the person you want representing you, it’s disconcerting. After all, you put a lot of trust into this person (and, of course, paid a lot of money, too).
Still, if you’re not happy with the representation you’ve received, you’re not stuck. You can fire your attorney at any time, and for any reason. Do you really want to? That’s another question entirely.
I do suggest that you talk to your attorney first, and get a second opinion from another attorney before you jump ship. Just because your attorney is saying something isn’t possible doesn’t mean that you should fire her (or him). By getting a second opinion, you can find out whether your attorney is just being a wet blanket (or just doesn’t have enough confidence in her skills), or whether she’s telling you the truth—whether you like the truth or not.
You should really think twice about firing your attorney if you have a hearing or other important date coming up. I talked to a woman at Second Saturday awhile back who wanted to fire her attorney (it was a Saturday, obviously, since we were at the seminar) on Monday when she had a pendente lite hearing (it’s Latin for “while the litigation is pending” and it’s a temporary support hearing—critically important in a contested divorce case, and tricky, if not impossible, to represent yourself in) that same week.
I feel like I’ve used a lot of colloquialisms in this article, but don’t bite your nose to spite your face. If you’ve got something important coming up, don’t fire your attorney in a huff, and leave yourself in a terrible position. Don’t count on getting a continuance—it doesn’t always happen.
But, when it all comes down to it, if you are unsatisfied with your representation, you can fire your attorney.
Can my attorney fire me?
Sometimes, attorneys fire clients, too. It depends on the circumstances, but an attorney can fire a client just like a client can fire an attorney. Usually, when we get out of case, we do so for specific reasons.
A little while ago, another attorney told me about a case he had to get out of. He was working with his client on a custody case, but his client was insisting that he lie to his ex wife. He was planning on accepting a job out of state, but his ex wife was also planning on relocating. Rather than negotiating an agreement that would allow both of them to relocate, he insisted that his attorney tell his ex wife, who was not represented by an attorney, that he was proposing an agreement in her best interests that would allow her to relocate. The agreement the client wanted would have been vague and deliberately misleading. It was made especially tricky for the attorney involved because the ex wife didn’t have an attorney representing her—which makes our ethical rules even more strict. The attorney wasn’t comfortable coming so close to lying to the ex wife, so, ultimately, he had to get out of the case.
The short answer, again, is yes—an attorney can fire a client. Sometimes it happens because the attorney and client just don’t see eye to eye or, like in the example I just gave, the client is asking the attorney to do something that, ethically, he or she is unwilling or unable to do. Other times it happens for practical reasons—like that the attorney’s bill is not getting paid. I know, I know. That’s not what you want to hear, is it? Believe me, it’s not a situation we like to have happen, either, but, though many of us are willing to work with existing clients as a case goes on, there’s a limit to what we’re allowed to do. We can’t handle an account balance that is negative past a certain point. After all, can you afford to keep the lights on if you work for free? It’s unfortunate (for both parties involved), but it does happen.
When can an attorney get out? It all depends on the case. In a case where a separation agreement is being negotiated, and nothing has been filed before the court, an attorney can withdraw at any time.
It’s only complicated if the attorney has made an appearance in the case. With the client’s permission, a withdrawal can happen at any point in the process. Without it, the attorney may have to petition the court to ask the judge to allow it. Sometimes, especially if a court date is coming up and the judge feels that it would be particularly disadvantageous to the client, the judge will refuse to let the attorney out. Other times, the judge will grant the attorney’s motion, even over the client’s objection. Usually, if there’s no pending court dates, the judge will grant the attorney’s motion.
If you’re worried about your attorney and wondering whether you might want to fire him (or her) or whether he (or she) might be preparing to fire you, now might be a good time to get a second opinion. Come in to our office and meet with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys—it’s a great place to start! You can schedule a consultation or register for one of our upcoming divorce or custody seminars by giving us a call at (757) 425-5200.