At Butler Kahn, we’re often asked by potential clients if they can fire their current lawyers. While we express no opinion about whether you should or shouldn’t fire your lawyer, the short answer to that question is ‘yes.’
What is Unethical Solicitation?
The decision to hire or fire a lawyer is a personal one, and it’s a decision you have to make for yourself. But there are some clues that should set off alarm bells.
We wish this wasn’t the case, but some lawyers do unethical things to get you to hire them. The Georgia Supreme Court does not allow lawyers to contact potential clients unless that potential client has first contacted the lawyer. If you did not contact an attorney’s office, no one should be contacting you from that office. Additionally, sometimes lawyers will use ‘case runners’ or ‘ambulance chasers’ to reach potential clients. Case runners are not lawyers. Rather, they are hired by lawyers to do whatever is necessary to get accident victims to hire that lawyer. Runners sometimes pay off emergency room or EMS employees, pay off towing companies, and or use police reporting websites. Just like the direct solicitation of potential clients, the use of case runners is also against the rules put forth by the Georgia Supreme Court.
In Georgia, and most other states, ‘case running’ violates the Rules of Professional Conduct. Those rules are issued by the Georgia Supreme Court and guide how a lawyer should act. Specifically, the rules do not allow a lawyer to contact you directly about your case unless you have reached out to the lawyer first. Additionally, a Georgia law, O.C.G.A. § 33-24-53, makes it illegal to solicit a personal injury victim in exchange for compensation from an attorney or a healthcare provider.
Lawyers that use case runners have questionable ethical standards and aren’t good enough to attract clients without breaking the rules. Good lawyers do not need to break the rules to get clients because their work speaks for them.
How Should I fire my lawyer?
Firing your personal injury lawyer is relatively simple. Send your lawyer something in writing, such as a letter or an email stating that you no longer need their services. Confirm that your communication was received. Keep a copy of any written correspondence that you send to your lawyer.
When is the best time to fire my lawyer?
If you decide to fire your lawyer, it’s best to do it before a settlement offer is made. The reason is that most representation agreements with personal injury lawyers say that the lawyer gets a share of any offer on the table at the time the lawyer is fired. The lawyer could also have the legal right to collect the value of any services rendered or what the law calls ‘quantam meriut.’ If you fire your lawyer early, there usually isn’t much work that has been done and a lawyer might not pursue that money. Finally, there may be additional (or different) terms in the contract that you signed with your lawyer. You may want to read your retainer agreement before you send your termination notice.
Can I Fire My Attorney if I Signed a Contract?
Yes, you can. In Georgia, essentially all attorney-client representations should begin with a written contract, so this question almost always applies. In other words, almost every time someone fires their lawyer, they are firing a lawyer with whom they have a written contract.
The terms of that contract are important, however. Most contracts with personal injury lawyers or law firms establish what happens if the law firm is fired. We talk about this in greater detail below, but most of the time, the contract will give the personal injury law firm the right to a “contingency fee” on the highest offer that has been made by the insurance company at the time that the law firm is fired. If the insurance company has not made an offer yet, the contract usually gives the law firm the right to collect for the reasonable value of the services rendered.
Can I Fire My Lawyer During Trial or During Litigation?
Yep. But it does get more complicated after the complaint has been filed with the Court because the litigation has to continue somehow.
If a party fires their lawyer while litigation is ongoing, then there are basically two options. First, the person can represent themselves, which is called going “pro se.” That often doesn’t work out well because it takes some experience and skill to litigate successfully, and most judges strongly prefer that parties hire lawyers who know how to move the case forward. But, it is an option, and you do have the right to represent yourself.
Second, the party who fires their lawyer can hire a new lawyer or law firm. If that happens, the new lawyer simply files a “Notice of Substitution of Counsel” to let the Court and the opposing lawyers know who the new attorney is going to be. Then the case continues with the new lawyer.
There can be some practical difficulties. Litigation often involves complexity, and it can be hard for a new lawyer to jump in mid-stream because there is a lot of information to catch up on. Many lawyers are reluctant to become involved with cases that are already being litigated because more often than not, the old lawyer hasn’t done a good job and the new lawyer has to try to clean up lots of mistakes.
That’s another reason why, if you’re going to change lawyers, it’s best to do that early.
Do You Have to Pay Your Lawyer if You Fire Them?
It depends. It depends on how much has been done before the lawyer is fired, and what your contract with the lawyer says.
Let’s talk about the contract first. Most personal injury contracts specify that if the law firm is fired, then the law firm has a right to collect its contingency percentage (usually between one-third and 45%) of the highest offer that the insurance company makes before the law firm is fired. But if there is no offer on the table when the law firm is fired, then this part of the contract is not applicable.
Most personal injury contracts also specify that if the law firm is fired before there is any offer on the table, then the law firm has the ability to collect in “quantum meriut.” Quantum meriut is a fancy legal term that basically means the value of services provided. In other words, the law firm that is fired would have a right to collect for the reasonable value of the work that the firm did before it was fired.
Most of the time, lawyers and law firms who are fired don’t bother to collect in quantum meriut because most of the time, if they’re fired before the insurance company makes an offer, the lawyer or law firm hasn’t done much. In that circumstance, it isn’t worth the law firm’s time and trouble to try to prove the value of their services. So in that circumstance, it is common for the person who fires their lawyer to not have to pay anything to the firm that was fired.
That’s a big reason why, if you’re going to have to fire your lawyer, it is best to do that early. Firing a lawyer is usually a hard decision, and if you’re reading this because you’re thinking about it, we would emphasize again that whether to fire your lawyer is your decision, and we offer no opinion about whether you should or should not do it. But if you need to change lawyers, it is best to do that early, before the insurance company makes an offer or the law firm has done a lot of work on your case. That way, you will end up owing little or nothing to the lawyer you have to fire.
Reasons to Fire Your Lawyer
This is not a fun topic for us to write about. We wish all lawyers did their jobs well, and firing lawyers was not necessary. But we are realists. We know that there are some law firms out there that treat their clients like numbers and don’t do good work for people who need help. If you’re stuck with a lawyer with whom you are not comfortable, here are some signs of trouble.
There are many situations where you might want to change lawyers. An essential component of a personal injury case is knowing what is happening. Good communication from your lawyer keeps you informed about the investigation, what strategy will be used, upcoming deadlines, required paperwork, communications from the insurance company, and other important information.
If your current lawyer failed to explain the strategy they plan to employ for your case, you should insist on an in-person meeting to discuss those concerns. If they were unable to explain what type of compensation you could potentially earn and, more importantly, what evidence has to be uncovered before that compensation could potentially be secured, also consider meeting with them in person to get more information.
If they do not communicate or agree to meetings, or the issues are not fixed to your satisfaction, consider changing lawyers.
If you regularly deal with a case manager and not your attorney directly, or they fail to return your calls within 48 hours, these are also signs that you should consider changing lawyers.
- Bad Communication. When someone calls us looking for a new lawyer, this is almost always the reason. Callers say things like, “my lawyer won’t call me back,” “I can’t get in touch with my lawyer,” “I can’t get an update on my case,” and “I don’t know what is going on with my case,” or even “my lawyer won’t talk to me.”
And, frankly, those are good reasons to fire a lawyer. The rules of ethics that govern lawyers require that lawyers keep their clients updated. Communication is key and (as our Google reviews show) we prioritize communicating with our clients with regular updates. We also believe that lawyers – not simply “case managers” – should be available to talk with their clients. If you aren’t getting that, it is a sign of trouble. If you don’t know what is happening with your case and you can’t get an update from your lawyer, that can be a valid reason to fire them and move on.
- Runners and Client Solicitation. This is one of the most embarrassing things about our profession, honestly. Way too many personal injury law firms unethically solicit clients, often using what we call “runners.”
If you have been in an accident or have been hurt, lawyers are not supposed to call you, show up at the hospital, or show up at your door. In other words, you are supposed to have some time to recover and then choose a lawyer on your own. When a personal injury law firm contacts you – instead of you contacting them – that is an unethical violation of the rules that govern lawyers, and it is a very bad sign.
Good lawyers and law firms don’t do that. If your lawyer or law firm unethically solicited you as a client by cold-calling you, showing up at the hospital, or showing up at your house, the chances are very high that the law firm is not a good one. Many bad law firms use “runners” to cold-call clients or show up and offer representation to injured people. That’s a good reason to fire your lawyer.
- Incompetence. You hired a lawyer because you wanted an expert to guide you through the process of bringing a personal injury case. You probably don’t know the details of law and litigation, which is why you hired a lawyer in the first place, so it can be hard to tell whether your lawyer knows what they’re doing or not. But sometimes, you just get that feeling. If you become convinced that your lawyer is not competent, that’s a good reason to move on.
Sample Attorney Termination Letter
For a printable version of this letter, follow this link.
Not to repeat ourselves too much, but whether to fire your lawyer is your decision. We don’t have an opinion about whether you should or should not fire them. But if you decide to fire your lawyer, it is best to do it in writing.
That can be in an email, in a letter, or in a text message. It can be simple. You might as well be polite (because being rude won’t accomplish anything). For example, your letter or email might look like this.
Dear [name of lawyer or law firm],
Thank you for representing me in my case. However, I have decided to hire a different lawyer. For that reason, I no longer want [name of law firm] to represent me. Please note that the representation is now terminated, effective immediately.
Please send me a copy of my complete file related to the case.