Firing your attorney is something that a client should carefully consider before jumping into it. At times, firing your attorney, even if they’re not doing their job, can be a big detriment to your case and could outweigh the benefits to be gained. As an example, if your attorney in a personal injury case has started negotiations on your case and have obtained an offer, then that attorney will probably have what is called a “lien” on your case. To find out, take a look at the retainer agreement you signed. A typical agreement will allow that attorney to keep 30% of the obtained offer as their fee, even after you fire them. They will also typically have a claim for the reasonable value of time they put into your case. For example, if the attorney can claim that they put 20 hours into your case, and they charge $300 per hour, then they have a lien on your case for $6,000.
A problem arises for clients who want to change attorneys when the amount of the potential claimed lien is large. In those cases, it will be difficult to find an attorney who will want to take their case with a lien attached to it. The reason for this is that the second attorney will basically be working for the first one to get that lien paid before the later attorney can get a fee on the case. The client probably doesn’t care, but unless the lien is well below the expected value of the case, most of the attorneys out there will not want to get involved in the case. In addition, some lawyers may not want to get involved on the assumption that because you are wanting to fire your attorney that you are a “problem client.” For this reason, I have a number of times attempted to talk my client out of leaving their lawyer.
Consider also what you are going to do after you fire your lawyer. Are you going to try it alone? Who will represent you if there is a large lien on your case. What exactly is your exit plan? Make sure you have this figured out before you drop the bomb on your lawyer.
Honestly, the last thing you want to do is fire a lawyer, no matter how little you may think of him, who has gone out on a limb for you in the first place by taking your case. What might happen is that you will not be able to find a lawyer who can replace him. If this happens, the original attorney, who you just fired, may now feel tremendously relieved that you fired them and will refuse you back. This is a crummy situation to be in. If your case is strong, however, it may not be all that difficult to find a a good replacement attorney.
Obviously, in cases where the accident, injury or untimely death just happened, the amount of the claimed attorney lien will be much less. And sometimes in the early stages, there will be no lien at all. And then in cases where you can honestly say that your attorney has done nothing on your case or has“dropped the ball,” you may have a good argument to use for getting out of the lien.
This now brings us to how you can actually fire your lawyer. Firing them can be done in a number of ways. The quickest way to do this is to simply call them (or their assistant) and tell them over the phone that they are fired. Be firm and expect resistance or the run around, especially if you hired a large TV firm. (Think cancelling AOL and you’ll know exactly what I mean.) At the time you terminate them, you should request that they provide a copy of your file. You can either have them send it to you or let them know that you will be by to pick it up personally.
When you call, as mentioned, be prepared to defend your decision to fire them. In other words, be firm about firing the firm or they may try and “talk you out of it.” (If your are ambivalent or are mistaken that they are not working on or care about your case, then this may not necessarily be a bad thing.)
Another way to leave your lawyer is to write them a letter and mail it or fax it to them. In your letter, let them know they are fired and request a copy of your file. You don’t need to give any explanation, but I would recommend in those cases where don’t think they were doing their job, tell them so. This will likely cause them to take a closer look at fixing problems that may be there – which will benefit the lawyer’s other clients. Your explanation will also make it less likely that they will put a lien on your case.
Yet another way to fire your attorney is to simply show up at their office and tell them that they are fired and that they should make a copy of your file while you wait. This is a very bold move, and is not right for everyone. Also, it may take a while to copy your file, depending on where the it is and who has it. All things considered, though, it’s probably best to give them advance warning that you will be asking for your file.
This brings us to the next point I want to make: that you are absolutely entitled to a copy of your file. Don’t let the attorney or his or her staff tell you that you’re not entitled to it or that you have to pay for the records they collected. It is also unethical for them to tell you that you have to pay their attorney lien before you can get your file. If they tell you this, let them know that you will be calling the state bar. The phone number for the Utah State Bar is (801) 531-9077.