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Cutting a Client: 4 Tips to Help With Ending Representation

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By William Peacock, Esq. on November 07, 2013 2:54 PM

Sometimes, it just doesn't work out. Maybe your client is insisting on taking an unethical route in pressing or defending against a claim. Or perhaps, she simply hasn't paid you.

Unfortunately, ending representation isn't as easy as walking out, or saying, "I quit." There are, obviously, quite a few ethical considerations involved. Plus, if litigation has already commenced, you'll likely have to get permission from the court to withdraw from the case. And, of course, there's the matter of not getting into a legal or fee dispute with your client.

Here are a few tips for easing the transition:

Have a Reason

The Model Rules list a number of reasons why one must terminate the attorney-client relationship: if the representation will violate ethics rules, if the lawyer is mentally or physically incapable of continuing, or if the lawyer is fired.

A lawyer may terminate for a number of reasons, from "other good cause," to not getting paid (after a warning from the lawyer), to the client using the lawyer's services for fraudulent or criminal activity.

Get Permission

Rules vary jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction, but generally, if litigation has commenced, you'll need to get the permission of the tribunal before stepping down. This may be as simple as submitting a form, or as complicated as appearing in front of the judge and explaining why you wish to withdraw.

Of course, if an explanation is required, you'll want to be sure to comply with rules regarding confidentiality and not disclose any information that may harm your client's interests.

And if permission is denied, well, too bad: you're stuck with her.

Smooth the Transition

You can't drop a client on the eve of trial. You also probably shouldn't hand her the case file and say, "Good luck," without further input or advice.

The model rules advise that you give reasonable notice, allow time for obtaining other counsel, and provide any papers or property belonging to the client. Obviously, any unused retainers or advance fees must be returned.

Cover Your Butt

Always keep a copy of the file! This problem client is being dropped for a reason, right? How much do you want to bet that you'll be slapped with a malpractice suit in a year or two? Even if the odds of such a suit materializing are slim, you'll want a copy of the file handy -- just in case.

Also, you need to use a disengagement letter, signed by the client, that confirms the termination of the relationship, provides reasonable notice before withdrawal is final, indicates any outstanding balance due, recommends seeking other counsel, and of course, warns the clients of any upcoming deadlines. Sample letters, such as this one for non-payment of fees, can be found online or through your local bar association.

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