Can You Fire Your Personal Injury Lawyer?
I frequently get calls from people who are unhappy with their attorney and would like to hire me to help resolve their injury claim. Apparently, a significant number of clients fall out of love with their attorney of choice before their case is resolved. But what can they do about it now? After all, they have signed a contract with their attorney. How can they fire him? This article is intended to answer that question, but also to attempt to find the reason for your dissatisfaction and get you back on track with your attorney.
The contract you signed with your attorney not only retains him to represent you on your case, but also assigns him an interest in your case. That’s right, you have given him a piece of your case, a 1/3 piece of the pie, so to speak. How does the pie get cut up if you no longer want him to represent you? Many times the lawyer won’t even talk to you, much less negotiate with you. Read on and I will show you how to sort this all out.
No matter what type of case, what the injuries are, or the attorney involved, the client’s dissatisfaction can always be traced back to one thing – the attorney’s failure to talk with his client. Many attorneys don’t take calls from their clients, don’t want to answer client questions, and don’t return voicemails and emails. Besides being a lousy way to practice law and probably a violation of the Texas Rules of Ethics (see my article: “What Can You Expect When You Hire a Personal Injury Attorney”), this behavior leaves the client frustrated and angry.
Nobody likes being ignored. When your attorney fails to return your calls, his behavior is telling you that he has prioritized whose calls to return and you apparently don’t merit much priority. Telling you he’s busy is never an excuse. I suspect he finds time to return his wife’s calls as well as his friend’s calls. He can find time to return your call. When he consistently fails to return your calls and to keep you informed about your case, he erodes your trust. When the trust is gone, the attorney/client relationship is in trouble.
The solution is not necessarily for you to fire him and retain someone else. I think you should first try to patch things with your attorney. I always advise people to set up a meeting. At that meeting, bring a written list of all the questions important to you and expect your attorney to give you honest, clear answers to all your questions, no matter how long it takes. Conduct yourself professionally, objectively, and without attitude. It’s important to tell him how you feel (ignored, angry, frustrated, concerned, distrustful – are good adjectives) but do so without resorting to name calling. Keep an open mind. Maybe there is a logical explanation for whatever has gotten you angry or suspicious. If he takes his time with you and patiently, calmly and sincerely answers all your questions, then maybe there is still hope for your relationship.
I once had a client complain that I had not done any work on his case. I invited him into my office for a face to face discussion. I was able to show him the case file notes documenting many tasks that had been done on his file including phone calls, letters, records gathering and routine reviews of his case. He was especially impressed that on multiple occasions I had worked on his case on holidays, weekends, and evenings. He left more than satisfied and was a happy client from then on.
If your attorney’s office won’t even let you schedule a meeting, then you should go to his office unannounced and attempt to meet with him. This usually doesn’t go well but at least you can say you tried. Again, be polite, professional, and respectful.
BUILD YOUR CASE
As you will see later in this paper, it will be helpful if you can show just cause for firing your attorney. This is best done through documentation of everything that has happened on your case. Create a timeline by keeping written notes documenting the time and date each note was entered. Your timeline will log every time you have left a message and how many times he has failed to respond, as well as how many times (if any) his office has contacted you and for what reason. Save emails and texts between you and your attorney.
WHEN AND HOW TO FIRE YOUR ATTORNEY
If he has ignored your requests for a meeting or if the meeting did not address your concerns to your satisfaction and you have reached the point where you cannot work with this attorney any longer, then your only recourse is to terminate the relationship. Do this in writing and be specific about your reasons. Finally, ask for a complete copy of your file. Again, be polite, professional and stick to the facts.
Your letter should read something like this: Dear Mr. _____. Effective immediately I am terminating your services as my attorney regarding my accident of (date of accident). You have failed to keep me informed about my case and have failed to return my calls. I have left messages for you on the following dates: _____, _____, ____, ____ and you have failed to return any of those messages. Please provide me with a complete copy of my file at your earliest convenience.
I have seen cases where the attorney has never met nor talked to the client. Sometimes, the client signed the attorney’s contract at his chiropractor’s office. Sometimes, the client has only met with and talked to the legal assistant. If this is the case, put this in your letter.
DOES HE STILL KEEP 1/3 OF YOUR CASE?
In order to avoid paying any fee to your fired attorney, you must show that you had “just cause” to terminate the relationship. The “just cause” test was established in 1969 by the Texas Supreme Court in a case styled Mandell and Wright vs. Thomas. In that case, a woman had hired the Mandell and Wright firm to represent her on a claim for the wrongful death of her husband. A mere six days after she signed the contract, she decided she wanted to hire a different attorney and fired Mandell and Wright. The court determined that Mrs. Thomas did not have “just cause” to terminate the attorney/client relationship and therefore Mandell and Wright was entitled to the full fee.
In reality, most disputes of this type are resolved after discussions between the fired attorney and the new attorney. Almost always, the fired attorney settles for a portion (usually a 1/3 portion) of whatever the new attorney’s fee turns out to be. In other words, instead of taking 1/3 of your case, he takes 1/3 of your attorney’s 1/3. In situations where facts exist that support an argument of just cause for termination, often times the fired attorney can be persuaded to forego his fee. If the two attorneys cannot agree on a resolution, the matter must go to court for a judge or jury to decide. Rarely does this happen.
CONCLUSION: IF YOU’RE NOT HAPPY, CHANGE LAWYERS
You are entitled to be represented by an attorney that has earned your trust and respect. If you decide that the attorney you picked is not working out the way you anticipated, know that this sometimes happens and it is not necessarily either party’s fault. Even the best attorneys sometimes displease a client. If you no longer feel you are being adequately represented, it is not fair to you nor to your attorney to stay in that relationship. If your attorney is experienced and honestly wants what’s best for his client, he’ll agree you deserve someone you will be happy with and he will cooperate in order to achieve a smooth transition with your new attorney. Good luck.
Law Offices of Robert Rodriguez