I’ve previously written about how to hire a lawyer, so I thought I’d write a little on how to fire a lawyer. First, take a look at your fee agreement you signed with your lawyer. It may have some language on what to do if you want to terminate the relationship. Generally, a client (or the attorney) can terminate the relationship at will. However, as long as the lawyer has an attorney/client relationship with you, he is bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct toward you, even if you are ready to end the relationship. So, you must be clear if you want to terminate an attorney. You should send him something in writing telling him clearly that you wish to end his services and an effective date. This should be sufficient to end the attorney/client relationship unless the attorney has made a filing with the court. If the attorney has filed any documents with the Court on your behalf, such as an Answer, Complaint, or simple Notice of Appearance, it takes more than a letter to end the relationship. The attorney must make a Motion before the Court to Withdraw. Before the judge signs the order, he is still your attorney, even if you do not wish him to be and give him no authority. This order will be granted on good cause, which could be as simple as either party no longer wishes to work with the other. An attorney is not allowed to make the motion, and the judge is not allowed to grant it if it would substantially hurt the client’s case. Usually, these motions would only get denied when it would be impossible to retain another attorney in time to try the case. The attorney is not allowed to bill you for his time for this motion.
Once you have fired your lawyer, keep in mind that most of their duties to you are ended. You are responsible for deadlines and filings, so you should get another attorney or make sure you fully understand what you need to do immediately. Your old attorney still has some duties to you under the Rules of Professional Conduct. He cannot represent somebody against you in the same or a substantially related matter, unless you give written consent. Neither can he use information that he gained through his work for you to your disadvantage. In addition, the attorney/client privilege survives and he cannot reveal information relating to his representation of you.
You should get your complete file from your old attorney or ask him to forward it to your new attorney. Your old attorney may keep a copy for his records. If you hired your old attorney with a retainer, he should return any amount that he has not billed for.
If you disagree on the amount of any legal fees with your old attorney, you can participate in the North Carolina State Bar Fee Dispute Resolution proceeding. If the lawyer has the dispute with you, he is required to notify you at least 30 days before filing any collection action against you. To participate, you will fill out a petition Your petition and attachments will be send to your old attorney for a response. Should the coordinator find that your petition is not frivolous or inappropriate, he will assign the case to an impartial mediator who will try and get you and your old attorney to agree to a settlement. The process is similar to mediation of a civil lawsuit.
--Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC who specializes in Personal Injury, Medical Malpractice, Contract and Real Estate disputes and all forms of Civil Litigation. Please contact him at (910) 772-1678.