Terminating Your Attorney

Many individuals experience buyer’s remorse after hiring an attorney. And why not – hiring an attorney is a BIG decision, often involving countless hours of research and consultation, and thousands of dollars in retainers and fees. Therefore, the adrenaline of the hire and the thrill of having someone to call, “my attorney”, does not usually last that long. Soon thereafter it is you, your family, and/or your business looking at a large bill and – maybe – not a lot to show for it.
So, what should you? Well, the first thing is to take a step back and conduct some introspection. Are your present feelings of buyer’s remorse really because of the performance of the attorney or law firm you hired? Or are they the “low” you are experiencing now that you have extinguished the initial “crush” or adrenaline-rush? By what standard are you grading your attorney’s performance? Is it consistent with the goals you and your attorney agreed to at the time of hire? Or is it based on your own, personal, secretive goals that you thought were bound to happen once you retained an attorney or got a chance to tell your side of the story? Because if the problem really is you and not the attorney, then terminating the attorney will likely be just a re-start of a cycle of disappointment.
Once you have determined that there are concrete reasons for you wanting to end the representation, then you need to take another step-back. In so doing, you need to reflect on those reasons and evidence of such. In so doing, you need to determine whether those situations are going to improve by making a change (e.g. facts, allegations, causes of action against you, pre-existing evidence / testimony / admissions, costs, etc.). In addition, whether making the change could do more harm than good (e.g. have you already made 3 attorney changes before this particular judge, are you at a critical juncture in your proceeding or negotiation, etc.). Hopefully, by taking this second reflective moment you can ensure that your decision is responsible and by making it – while justified – you will not be just shooting yourself in the foot or running up additional legal fees.
At this point, you may decide that you need to have a sit-down talk with your attorney. And why not! At one point, you thought they were the best thing since sliced bread and now you think they are mud. But have you told them that yet? Are you assuming that because you secretly think that they are mud that they too realize it? My guess is that they don’t know and actually will have constructive reasons to explain to you that they aren’t mud. So why not give them a chance to explain themselves? Alternatively, give them a chance to address the behaviors or actions you find unwanted or insufficient. You will be surprised how quick attorneys can change stripes for their client, so long as the change is consistent with being in the client’s best interest.
Once personal and observational reflection takes places and communication with your present attorney has been completed, you should be prepared to make an informed decision. And if the informed decision is still to terminate, well the process to implement is actually quite methodical.
First, take stock of all the actions and work your attorney is presently engaged in. Make sure you identify all matters, understand their current status, and understand what still needs to be accomplished (AND in what order!) prior to completion.
Second, identify who is taking over. This may be yourself. This may also be a new attorney. This new attorney search should not involve you getting new/alternative advice and counsel (at least, the attorneys should not be providing it if they know that you are presently represented), but rather identifying people you feel can competently handle the matters and legal services you need. Part of that identifying process should obviously include countering whatever it is that is driving your decision to terminate.
Third, review your present fee agreement. Clients, in almost all circumstances, have the right to terminate their attorney at-will. So, anything contrary to that within the fee agreement should be looked at skeptically (and noted for your new attorney). Rather, the primary reason behind the review of the fee agreement should be to determine whether your present attorney laid-out instructions on how to best expedite the transition. This might include instructions on how unearned fees are to be returned, when past due legal fees are due, and how to request refunds for unsatisfactory service. It should also provide instructions on how to request a copy of your file.
Fourth, is drafting the actual termination letter. The letter can be drafted by you or your new attorney. The letter should be concise and to the point – no need to air dirty laundry. Rather, it should inform the attorney that you are terminating their representation of you immediately and that all work should cease immediately. Furthermore, the letter should instruct the attorney to return unearned fees and on how you want your file to be delivered or made available. If you are presently in litigation, the letter should explain how you plan to inform opposing counsel and the tribunal of your change in representation. Finally, the letter should communicate to the attorney a reasonable date by which they are required to comply. While the termination can be communicated by any method, we recommend sending via certified, registered, or priority mail.
A concise communication focused on handling the actual transition is the best way to handle the termination of the attorney. That limits the communication to the meat-and-potatoes of what you are attempting to accomplish. It also directs both you and your – NOW – former attorney to deal with the present and future, instead of dwelling on an unpleasant past. Hopefully, such a tactic will keep the matter from devolving into unprofessional behavior.