When Should You Change Your Lawyer

Sometimes clients regret their decision in hiring a particular lawyer.

Sometimes the fault is with the lawyer. Some lawyers do a bad job when it comes to returning phone calls, or keeping a client informed about the progress of a case. Some lawyers make promises to their clients and don't follow through. Sometimes a lawyer will mislead a client, causing a break-down of trust.

Sometimes there will be a misunderstanding that, although not really the fault of either the lawyer or client, makes it hard for them to work together. Sometimes the attorney-client relationship breaks down for other reasons, such as a conflict of personalities.

And sometimes it is the lawyer who will initiate the termination of the attorney-client relationship.

You Can Fire Your Lawyer

The decision to hire a particular lawyer is not permanent or irrevocable. That is, you have the right to change lawyers. You are not stuck working with a lawyer that you don't like or believe to be incompetent.

While your former lawyer or law firm will typically be entitled to reasonable compensation for work performed through the time a new lawyer takes over your case, you can move a your case to a different law firm. Your new law firm should handle any required documents, such as the filing of substitution of counsel with a court, and should help you resolve any remaining fee issues that involve your former law firm.

The Cost of Changing Lawyers

Changing lawyers during the progress of a case can be costly.

Any time attorneys are working on an hourly fee basis, a change of lawyers can be expected to increase the client's total legal fees. A new lawyer will have to get up to speed with the case, reviewing documents, evidence and other materials that have previously been reviewed by the former law firm. When the lawyer is billing by the hour, that duplication of services can cost a lot of money.

If your case is being handled on a contingent fee basis, where your lawyer will be paid a percentage of the ultimate settlement or verdict, you typically won't increase your total attorney fee by switching firms. The contingent fee will typically be split between the two firms, without increasing the total attorney fee to be paid.

A change of lawyer during a lawsuit may increase the time it takes to resolve the case. Sometimes when a new attorney takes responsibility for a lawsuit, the attorney will want to perform additional discovery (to obtain information from the defendant and the defendant's witnesses), or will require the adjournment of imminent court proceedings in order to become sufficiently familiar with the file to provide sound representation at those hearings.

At the same time, if your lawyer is mismanaging your case, or is deceiving you about its progress, the risks of staying with that lawyer may significantly exceed the costs of remaining with the unsatisfactory lawyer.

If you do decide to take your personal injury case to a different law firm, make sure you get a clear explanation from any new attorney you consult in relation to how any fee issues in your case will be resolved between your new lawyer and your former lawyer.

Paying Your Former Lawyer

Many clients are angry with their former lawyer, and don't want the lawyer to receive even a single penny for the services they provided. But under most circumstances, the former firm will be entitled to recover the costs they have invested in the case (such as filing fees, deposition costs, and expert witness fees), and will also be entitled to recover the reasonable value of the work they performed.

The measure for this value of legal work performed may be defined by the fee agreement. If a court is asked to determine a reasonable fee, or to divide a contingency fee between law firms, the court applies the principle of "quantum meruit", a fancy term for the amount of compensation that the judge decides to be reasonable compensation for the work performed by the former firm.

In most contingent fee situations a payment to your former firm will not increase the total attorney fee you pay. If that is the case, rather than fretting about how much your former lawyer will get, let your new lawyer worry about that and save your attention for more important things.

Handling Disputes Over Fees

Sometimes there will be a dispute between the law firms involved in a case over the division of attorney fees. Sometimes in order to resolve that dispute, it is necessary for the firms to litigate the issue of their fees before a court or to submit the matter to arbitration.

When the attorneys are working on a contingent fee basis, it is usually possible for the plaintiff in a personal injury case to obtain the plaintiff's share of the verdict or settlement, even before the dispute between the lawyers has been resolved. Responsible law firms will seek to have the amounts not in dispute released to the plaintiff, with only those sums that are actually in dispute withheld pending the resolution of the fee dispute.

When the fee dispute exists between a lawyer and former client, many bar associations offer dispute resolution services that may help resolve the dispute.

Copyright © 2005 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.