One woman we know is in the fourth year of her divorce case—and on her third lawyer. Is she an exception? Not necessarily. Firing a lawyer is more common than you might think. Why does this happen? When is it warranted? And how do you pull it off?
The most common reason lawyers seek to fire clients is their failure to pay bills. Even if you've spent tens of thousands of dollars with a lawyer, if you are unable to meet a payment schedule, most lawyers will not want to continue representing you.
Sometimes, lawyers are let go due to a straightforward personality clash. Characteristics you were willing to overlook when you hired your lawyer (a brash, aggressive personality or perhaps a cloying patronage) now bother you so much that you can't talk to him or her anymore. Maybe you feel that your lawyer has mishandled your case. You've gotten a second opinion and learned about strategies that could have saved you time and money. When you ask your lawyer about them, she just shrugs. Sometimes, it's just a feeling that your case needs fresh ideas. Your attorney seems tired of the whole thing and no longer has the enthusiasm she had when you first hired her. You might also feel that your lawyer is giving in too easily to the other side or that trust has been breached. You tell your lawyer something you do not want repeated to your spouse's lawyer, and your attorney goes right ahead and does just that.
How do you fire your lawyer? The easiest way is to hire the replacement lawyer before you tell your present lawyer that you're making a change. Then, your new lawyer makes the call to your current lawyer and arranges to get your file, and you don't have to worry about the awkward moment of telling your lawyer it's over.
If you feel some personal statement or closure is in order, of course, you can send your attorney a short personal note. Depending on why you're “breaking up,” you can simply send a thank-you note for past services or write a brief statement stating your beef. As with any close relationship, your lawyer might already be suspicious that you are unhappy with him or her, so your note or call might not be a total surprise.
Remember, most lawyers will expect to be paid in full before they release your file. Depending on where you live, your lawyer might be required to release your file even if you have yet to pay for all services—but the bill won't go away. If you have a problem paying the bill or a disagreement over the bill, discuss this with your present lawyer and work out an agreement. Or if agreement isn't possible, check out whether your state bar association has an arbitration protocol to resolve fee disputes between attorneys and clients. (Many states even offer free arbitration for this purpose.) Otherwise, have your new lawyer work things out for you.