The answer to the above question is an absolute “Yes.” However, there are things you must understand about firing your lawyer. The first thing you must understand is that you definitely have the absolute right to fire him or her. However, prior to firing him/her, you should also look at other lawyers to see if there are other lawyers who you think can assist you.
You should then contact your lawyers and advise your lawyer that you intend to fire them. If you are no longer comfortable speaking with your lawyer, you should write a letter and send the letter to your lawyer advising them that you are terminating them and requesting your file. If you feel compelled, you can even put forth in the letter documentation as to why you are firing them. For example, you can indicate that the case that you hired your lawyer for has been unreasonably delayed for an extended period of time and thus your frustration and desire to terminate his/her services.
You can also put in a reason such as failure to return phone calls or failure to agree as to the method of the handling of your case. It is not uncommon for a client and lawyer to disagree as to what the best avenue for a case may be and as to the settlement value of a case and similar issues.
The fact of the matter is you and your lawyer are partners in your case. All lawyers are under an obligations to do what is best for their clients and what is in the client’s best interest. No lawyer of any repute will argue or disagree with a client desiring to terminate them. Please also remember that a lawyer can also fire a client. Thus, because there are these mutual terms, you can fire your lawyer, your lawyer can fire you.
However, you should also know in personal injury cases that a lawyer can claim a lien against your file with the insurance company based on any offers that have been made previous to your election to terminate your lawyer. The lawyer can also claim a lien for any out of pocket costs that he may advanced in the pursuit of your case.
For example, if a lawyer had an offer on the table from the insurance company of $9,000.00 and he had a 1/3 contingency fee contract with you, he could claim a lien with the insurance company for $3,000.00. What that means is that if you were to later settle your case with a different lawyer for example for $15,000.00, the lawyer who represented you first would have a lien for $3,000.00. The lawyer who increased the offer from $9,000.00 to $15,000.00 should only charge an attorney fee on the $6,000.00 increase or a $2,000.00 fee. That would still net you the same amount of money that you should have received regardless of having fired the first lawyer.
This is also a discussion you should have with any lawyer that you may hire after you terminate the services of your first attorney. A lawyer though can only charge for a reasonable value of their services rendered prior to being terminated plus costs that they have advanced and expended. In other words, if no offers have been made in a personal injury case and the attorney is fired before an offer is made, the attorney is still entitled to claim a lien for the reasonable value of their services rendered in their efforts to assist you to the date of his/her termination. Generally, the amount is determined by multiplying the number of hours expended by the attorney times the attorney’s hourly rate normally charged. Please note though the Ethics Rules for attorneys require the charges to be reasonable.
Also for your information, the payment of this outstanding fee/lien is usually not paid until the case is settled or until a jury verdict is rendered.
You should also know that a lawyer cannot hold your file hostage and require you to pay him a fee before the file will be released. That is unethical. Thus, if you terminate your lawyer and that lawyer attempts to require payment for his services prior to releasing the file, you need to contact the Bar Association who will assist you in this matter. Furthermore, any new lawyer that you would hire should also contact the lawyer and advise them that their conduct is unethical.
It is also important to understand that you can contact a new attorney and agree to hire the new attorney prior to terminating your old attorney. The new attorney will likely assist you in termination of the previous attorney.
I would also suggest that when you are writing your letter to your former attorney to terminate them that you send that letter certified mail. You should also review your attorney fee contract and see there is a specific procedure designated in the contract for termination of the attorney services.
In the letter, it would also be a good idea to include your new attorney’s name, address, fax number and general contact information including e-mail address. Your new attorney will also file a Motion to enter an appearance on your behalf before the Court if you have a case pending in Court. Your prior attorney will file a Motion to withdraw. Most attorneys will contact each other and speak with each other and frequently enter an Agreed Order substituting the new attorney.