There’s no such thing as a simple legal matter. This is mostly true because most legal matters involve people, and that’s where complications emerge. It’s when these complications become insurmountable or create a toxic environment that some attorneys must take the extraordinary step of firing their clients.
It’s Not Me, It’s You
Ending the attorney-client relationship is not simple when it’s the attorney calling it quits. There are a limited number of circumstances under which an attorney can fire a client, and the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.16 narrowly defines the scope for ending the relationship. In brief, these circumstances include:
- Representing the client would cause the attorney to violate the rules of professional conduct or other applicable laws
- The attorney’s physical or mental state impairs his or her ability to represent the client
- The attorney is fired by the client
In all the above circumstances, the attorney must ensure firing the client will not cause “material adverse effect on the interests of the client.”
If the client fails to pay for legal services, stops communicating with the attorney or legal team or somehow uses the attorney’s services to perpetrate a crime, the attorney is justified in terminating the relationship. And sometimes, quite simply, the attorney and client are incompatible and it is best for the client to avoid conflicting views or personalities by seeking other representation.
Of course, clients don’t like being fired. Especially if they believe they haven’t done anything wrong from their point-of-view. This is especially true with difficult clients who might feel they are merely looking out for their own best interests while also, inadvertently or not, complicating the work of their attorney.
As a result, such clients may file lawsuits against their former attorney. Sometimes for malpractice. Perhaps making a claim of negligence.
While a single negligence or malpractice claim by a former client isn’t a crisis, a handful or more over the course of a legal career can present a possible pattern, making the ability to secure professional liability insurance an expensive and difficult undertaking.
Making Better Choices
The key from the outset to avoiding these types of claims is client screening. Accurately gauging the client’s willingness and ability to cooperate with the attorney and his or her theory of the case is the first and most important litmus test to avoiding a bad ending of the relationship from the beginning. Personality, prior experience working with attorneys or within the legal system and the client’s financial resources are all important considerations.
Should it be determined the client has changed lawyers with some frequency in the past, be warned: This may be a client in search of a very specific outcome rather than legal representation. At the very least, attorneys meeting with such a client should be wary.
Of course, when terminating the attorney-client relationship, attorneys should make every effort to provide ample notice. In some states, attorneys may also need the permission of the courts to officially end their representation.
Should an attorney find him or herself needing to fire a client, they would do well to think through the situation and evaluate potential outcomes. However, if the client is truly unhappy or uncooperative, sometimes the best thing for all parties is to do is simply fire the unhappy client.