Individuals have the right to replace their personal injury attorneys whenever they want for whatever reason. A client’s right to fire an attorney exists even if the attorney performed services or the client owes the lawyer money. Although there does not need to be a reason to change attorneys, some of the more common circumstances include:
- Personality conflicts
- Differing case strategies
- Inadequate communication
- Missed deadlines
- Expanded legal needs
- An attorney’s conflict of interest
According to the New York City Bar Association’s New York Rules of Professional Conduct, examples of conduct by lawyers that may result in discipline include neglect of their client’s cases, mishandling money, misrepresentation and conflicts of interest.
When deciding to replace an attorney, try to do this as quickly as possible. The more time that passes, the more difficult it will be to bring another attorney up to speed in time to help. Once the decision has been made to change attorneys, there are a number of things that need to be done.
- The written agreement or contract with the attorney needs to be reviewed. If the agreement addresses the steps to be taken to terminate the relationship, these will need to be followed. A copy of that agreement should be reviewed by the new lawyer.
- A new attorney should be hired before the existing lawyer is fired. This minimizes the delay in switching lawyers. Changing lawyers while a case is in process may add to the time it takes to resolve a case. Sometimes when a new attorney takes responsibility for a personal injury file, that attorney will want to perform additional discovery, or will require more time to become sufficiently familiar with the file to provide sound representation. Ask the new attorney whether he or she will take responsibility for getting case files from the old attorney.
- Parties to litigation must confirm that the new lawyer will notify the court as to the change in representation.
- Sever the relationship with the former lawyer in writing by sending a certified or registered letter that clearly states that the relationship is being terminated, and that the lawyer is to stop working on the case. No details about why the attorney is being fired are needed. In the letter, request all files with instructions as to the handling of case files, meaning how these are to be received. For example, will the files be picked up or should they be sent by the lawyer? Or, if a new attorney is handling the transfer of files, politely ask the former lawyer to cooperate with the new lawyer on this matter. Set a deadline for handing over the files.
- If any fees were paid in advance and the work hasn’t been done, ask for a refund of the fees. Also, ask for an itemized bill listing all pending fees and expenses. If the case being worked on is a contingency fee case where the lawyers will be paid a percentage of the final settlement or verdict, the new attorney will pay the former attorney from any money that is recovered. This typically means that attorney fees will not increase if firms are changed. It is best to get a clear explanation from any new attorney on how any fee issues related to the personal injury case will be resolved between the new lawyer and the former lawyer. If a lawyer is working on an hourly basis, the legal fees will almost always increase due to the additional work required.
When changing lawyers, a few things that should not be done include:
- Do not contact the insurance agency directly about a current lawyer that is causing unhappiness. The insurance company may think there is something wrong with the case and the chance for a quick settlement will likely diminish.
- Do not complain too much to a prospective new lawyer about the former lawyer. Coming across as a problem client may make a lawyer not want to take the case.
Changing attorneys can be stressful, but acting professionally should make the process go much more smoothly.