How to Leave Your Clients, Without Getting 1,100 Bar Complaints

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 03, 2015 1:05 PM

California lawyer James Mazi Parsa might be the most complained-about lawyer ever. The Orange County attorney is currently facing over 1,100 pending bar complaints, many stemming from his alleged abandonment of clients.

Let's take Parsa's potential disbarment as a learning moment. When it's time to call things off with a client, there's an ethical way to pull the plug or there's, well, potential disbarment. Here's the difference.

The Worst Case Scenario

Parsa's case presents one of the absolute worst ways to end client engagement, aside from dying. Parsa was convicted in 2001 of misdemeanor unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, after he slept with his 17-year-old employee. He was given an interim suspension in 2009 -- a testament to the California Bar's speedy disciplinary system -- and received a two year suspension in 2014.

When Parsa's 2009 suspension was about to go into effect, he simply took down his shingle and closed up shop. Parsa's was no small practice, either. His law office employed more than 100 people working on loan modification cases for nearly 4.500 clients.

Parsa just ghosted, without even leaving a note. "He failed to notify his clients that he intended to withdraw and would not be pursuing their loan modification applications," according to a statement by the state bar. He also forgot to return $120,000 in unearned fees. More than 1,000 former clients have filed complaints against Parsa and he's now facing disbarment before the California Supreme Court. (For his part, Parsa claims that the state bar was responsible for explaining the circumstances to his clients, the ABA Journal reports.)

Breaking It off Right

There is an ethical way to ditch your clients, of course. If you're closing your practice, moving into a new state, facing suspension, or just want to be done with a particularly irksome client, you can end client engagement without breaking your ethical obligations.

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct enumerate seven reasons a lawyer may (as opposed to must) terminate representation. In brief, these are:

  1. When withdrawal can be accomplished without adversely effecting the client;
  2. When an attorney believes her services are being used for crime or fraud;
  3. When a client actually has used services for crime or fraud;
  4. When the client insists on action that an attorney fundamentally disagrees with;
  5. When the client fails to "substantially fulfill an obligation," such as payment of fees;
  6. When representation is unreasonably difficult or financially burdensome to the lawyer; or
  7. When any other good cause exists.

As David M. Majchrzak, an ethics and litigation attorney, notes, "Lawyers should end attorney-client relationships with the same care they put into beginning them." That requires providing sufficient notice to clients, release client papers and property. (Whether that property includes attorney work product will depend on your jurisdiction.) And be sure to return unused client funds.

Of course, like all relationships, the client-attorney relationship never ends simply. Even after representation has been terminated, attorneys still owe a duty of confidentially to and loyalty their clients, meaning they may be conflicted out of other representation in the future.

Or, there's always the Parsa approach. Just turn off the lights, unplug the phone, and wait for the state bar to catch up with you.

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