Breaking Up With Your Personal Injury, Divorce, or Civil Lawsuit Lawyer

I am NOT writing to encourage anyone to fire their lawyer and hire me. But, it happens to all lawyers. They fire clients and clients fire them. And there are those, “You can’t fire me, I quit!” situations.

I have been let go by a client, we all have. I can say with good conscience, except for the client who simply runs out of money and asks that I no longer represent them, I “fire” the client, or get fired, only when the client has such serious behavior or attitude problems that they will not allow me to help them. I am sure they may see that differently, but after 5000 cases or so in a career, I can help nearly anyone if they will let me. Some will not.

But, let me give you two examples of people that simply had to fire their lawyer:

1. An acquaintance brought in a dear fellow, post retirement age, whose leg was crushed at work. There was fault on behalf of his employer and two other negligent defendants, and plenty of insurance. He could not reach his lawyer.

2. A woman called whose lawyer had charged a $2700 retainer and two years later had no custody or child support order!  She could not reach her lawyer. (See any pattern here?)

The gentleman had been told by his lawyer a few weeks earlier that he was leaving the firm, and no one else in the firm would respond to his calls. There was clear fault and $80,000 in medical bills! So, I was happy to help him. When I got the file back, his former firm requested a “quantum meruit” fee; that is, the value of their services to date as a fee from the settlement.

I discovered that there were no medical records in the file! There were no medical bills in the file! There was ONE letter to an insurance adjustor in the file. The other lawyer had not identified two of the potential defendants. No settlement demand was in the file. In six months, after a frustrating failed mediation, we settled that case for a large sum of money. We paid the other firm the value of their services – NOTHING.

In the other case, the woman’s lawyer called me back, told me she had heard “rumors” the woman had gone back to her husband and that the woman did not communicate well with her. But, SHE HAD NO EXPLANATION FOR FAILING TO FILE A MOTION TO WITHDRAW AND NO EXPLANATION FOR FAILING TO GET EVEN THE TEMPORARY HEARING SET.

She was embarrassed, and I was gentle with her, but I could not resist mentioning to her the rule I will discuss here.

You see, there is a rule that governs how a lawyer gets out of a case, and, until the judge signs an order permitting withdrawal, the lawyer is responsible for that case. So the lawyer in the second scenario was obligated to move the case along or move to withdraw. She did neither.

There are judges who will not let a lawyer out of the case. I consider that inconsiderate, especially when the lawyer has 39 years experience and a reputation for fighting for his clients. When he asks to get out, he NEEDS to get out! (NOTE: to the judges who sneak a peak at this blog to see who p….s’d me off this week. IF I ASK TO GET OUT OF A CASE,  I NEED TO GET OUT!)

In the other case, the three lawyers in that firm were, quite simply, incompetent. I declined their offer that we associate and informed them that if they persisted in pursuing a quantum meruit claim, the client would complain to State Bar Disciplinary Counsel.

Please, do not tell anyone, but I tend to have a soft heart; and, for clients I really like, or who REALLY need me, I stay on in certain cases after they have run short of funds. (It drives my billing clerk crazy!) I may not be able to do that in the future. Things are getting pretty tough here in WV.

But, as a minimum, those clients must:

1. Pay me something each month, keep in touch with my wife Nancy, billing clerk and office manager.

2. Do what I ask of them regarding providing a history, helping gather evidence, etc.

3. Follow my advice!!

I do not quit if my client gets drunk, not the first time. I do not quit if my client does drugs, but they must get help, and they must be honest with me. Even a relapse will not get rid of me, until I decide that I cannot help this person. I once sat through a long settlement meeting with a drunken alcoholic and got him a fair parenting plan, even the Court thought so, but I quit when the client bad-mouthed me and my efforts in open court. My colleague responded indignantly, and defended me. Thanks Jeff.

When the case is over, the lawyer must return the client’s file, if not the day he asks for it, soon. That’s because the file is the client’s. The lawyer may not charge for copying it. Our policy of scanning everything means we can give the client the paper file and a disk, and still have the file on record. We are a bit behind on returning files to the client who does not ask, but we are working on it.

My policy is that if it appears to be a simple communication problem between lawyer and client, I tell the client what to say to her lawyer. If the lawyer still will not respond, or, after a serious chat the client remains unhappy, my conscience is clear in accepting that client.

Accepted wisdom is not to take a difficult client that another lawyer had trouble with. That can be “nuanced”. A careful interview may identify the source of the client’s frustration. A male lawyer may have more influence and control over a headstrong male client that a 30 year old female, especially if the male client does not respect women.

A sensitive, compassionate, 30 year old lawyer may be a better match for a sensitive, shy client, than a gruff, older, male. On that issue, I CAN be gentle with the client who needs me to be gentle, and I can be blunt if that is what the client needs. Recently, I had a first, a client who says I should have been “more blunt” in explaining the risks of his settlement. Be careful what you ask for!

So, if you know someone who is fed up and ready to give up on their lawyer, it might be as simple as coming to me and having me call the lawyer. You should not “change horses” casually, but when it has to be done……………….., it has to be done. And if the client has to go, HE HAS TO GO!


This post was written by Burton Hunter


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