Should You Fire Your Lawyer and How Does That Work?

In certain cases a client should quickly fire a newly hired lawyer. For example, if the tow truck driver who came after the client's car was wrecked pitches a certain lawyer, or someone else at the accident scene or close to the accident pitches a lawyer, it may mean that the lawyer is unethically and illegally paying for clients.

In general, the sooner you leave a lawyer you are not happy with, the better. Some personal injury practices send a non-lawyer out to sign up a client who is in the hospital or laid up at home. The Nevada State Bar says that the initiation of an attorney fee contract must be done by a lawyer. Therefore, such a fee agreement would be invalid when signed. However, if the client then lets the lawyer begin work on the case there might be an argument that the initially invalid fee agreement became valid by the subsequent conduct of the client and lawyer.

Practical Problems When Switching Lawyers

As a practical matter there are a number of problems to switching lawyers, especially if considerable time has gone by after hiring the lawyer.

  • Fees Owed to the Previous Lawyer:

    In an hourly fee case, the new lawyer will obviously bill some time to get up to speed on the case; this may not be a deal breaker. But in a contingency fee case the old lawyer may assert a lien for work already done. Since the client doesn't want to pay double, the client should ask the new lawyer if the old lawyer's lien will be paid out of the new lawyer's contingency fee. If the new lawyer agrees, this can work out well for the client. If the new lawyer doesn't agree, the client may be in a double billing situation.

  • It May Not Be Easy To Get A New Layer To Step Into An Ongoing Case With Contingency Fees

    At Reed Mansfield, we would ask the following questions of ourselves and the prospective client in a contingency fee case:

    • How much work has the previous lawyer done? What would be a reasonable lien they would charge?
      The best situation for a switch is if the old lawyer sees a much lower value to the case than I see. If I think I can get a lot more than the old lawyer thinks the case is worth, a switch can be a win for all involved. Old lawyer gets rid of an unhappy client; I can pay out of my contingency fee a lien amount that makes old lawyer happy and doesn't cut that much into my fee and client gets better served.
    • Does this case have some serious problems?
      A client may be unhappy with the lack of communication from the lawyer or state that the lawyer doesn't seem interested etc. Although it may be that their choice of lawyers wasn't ideal it also may be that there are some serious issues with the case. The laywer may have found information that didn't line up with what was provided by the client or they don't feel it is a strong case etc. and are trying to come up with a tactful reason to not proceed with the case.
    • Does the insurance company or self-insured defendant think the case is defensible and won't offer any money?
      If this is the situation, we have to ask ourselves whether this is a challenge we want to take on. If we think the case is really good and worth a lot of money the challenge may be worthwhile. But if the case is not strong, or not worth a lot of money, the cost and time of taking the case to trial may not justify taking on a client who chose a different lawyer to begin with. It is one thing to keep an insurance company honest if the client has been with us all along; it is a different matter to pick up some other lawyer's difficult case.

Example Scenario:

A fairly common case that gets put to a judge is when client hires Lawyer A on a contingency fee and Lawyer gets an offer and advises the client to take it. For example, the offer is $50,000. Client thinks the case is worth more and fires Lawyer A and hires Lawyer B who after some work gets the case settled for $100,000. Lawyer A says, "I get a fee based on the $50,000 offer." Lawyer B says, "Lawyer A doesn't deserve half the fee for urging the client to sell out for half the value of the client's case." However, in this situation the courts usually side with Lawyer A.

In conclusion, yes, a client with a contingency fee case can always fire their lawyer. But, as a practical matter, it may not be easy to get another lawyer to step into an ongoing case.