Yes, you can fire your lawyer. But getting your money back…..well, that depends.
Let us explain.
Can I Fire My Lawyer and Get My Money Back (EXPLAINED)
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Termination of The Attorney-Client Representation Relationship
In most instances, the client can choose the fire their lawyer at any time.
And the attorney can fire their client at any time.
That being said, once the attorney and client have decided to part ways, they’ll need to get the court’s approval.
In some situations, the court will not allow the attorney to “withdraw” from the case, or allow the client to represent himself.
This often happens when a hearing or trial is near, or if the client would be significantly harmed by the withdrawal of the attorney at that time.
It also happens in criminal cases when the defendant wants to fire his court-appointed lawyer (and has done this frequently in the past).
In most cases, the termination rights between the parties is set forth explicitly in the attorney fee agreement signed by both the parties in the beginning of the case.
But in general, if you want out of the case, the attorney won’t try and stop you.
It is almost impossible for an attorney to effectively represent a client who doesn’t want to be their client.
Getting your money back is not as easy as firing the lawyer.
Initially, we look at what money was paid to the attorney, and what for.
For example, if the money you paid to the attorney was then paid to experts who planned to appear for trial, you will have a difficult time getting your money back from the attorney because they attorney doesn’t have it, paid it to other individuals on behalf of you and your case, and you received a benefit from the assistance of those individuals.
If you paid the attorney for medical records or other physical items in the file, you’ll get your file (and those records), and it is unlikely that you’ll be able to get the attorney to return your funds for those kinds of expenses.
As it relates to attorney fees, let’s say that you hired the attorney on an hourly basis.
The attorney requested that you place $5,000 in the attorney trust account.
Until that money is earned by the attorney, that $5,000 legally belongs to you, as the client.
If the attorney has not earned any of that money, then he should promptly return that five grand to you upon your request.
However, if the attorney has earned some of that money, all he will return to you if you fire him is the balance of the trust account funds that he has not earned.
Another tough situation is when you hire an attorney on a flat fee basis.
You pay the lump sum up front, and sign a contract agreeing that the flat fee is “non-refundable.”
Part way through the case, you realize that hiring the attorney was a mistake.
In some jurisdictions (but not all), there are ethics rulings that prohibit the charging of unreasonable fees to clients.
If you pay a $5,000 non-refundable flat fee and then fire the attorney before the attorney has done much of anything, he will have earned attorney fees in an unreasonable amount.
It would make sense to demand the return of the flat fee (even though the contract says non-refundable) if the attorney hasn’t done any work on the case, or at least a part of the flat fee commiserate with the work that the attorney has already completed.
What About When The Attorney Has Already “Earned” The Money?
This situation is more difficult.
Let’s say the case is over, the attorney has paid himself, but you are extremely unhappy with the results.
It will likely require more work for the client to get his money back.
To start, the client should check the billing statement each month, and object in writing to any fees that seem wrong or unreasonable.
This helps the client keep track of issues, and these written communications can later be used in a fee dispute with the attorney.
In general, the place to start with trying to get your money back is to start by sending a written demand to the attorney for the money back.
If you and the attorney cannot resolve the dispute, then you have several options.
First, you can file a claim with the attorney’s malpractice insurance for repayment of your fees.
This may be called “PLF” in some jurisdictions (professional liability fund).
If the attorney refuses to give you any information about his PLF insurance, the state bar association should be able to point you in the right direction.
Second, you can check with your state bar association to see if there are any legal fee dispute resolution services.
There may be low cost arbitration or mediation services that can help you proceed with your claim.
You can also check with the state bar ethics department about filing a disciplinary claim against the attorney for the services rendered.
Because ethics claims are so stressful and obnoxious to attorneys, this may motivate him to come to the table to negotiate your fee dispute.
Third, you could file a lawsuit against your attorney for malpractice, and demand the return of your attorney fees.
This could be done in small claims court, if the amounts at issue are under the threshold (usually less than $10,000).
Or you could hire a specialized legal malpractice attorney, and pursue the fees in open court with a jury trial.
Making Noise Might Make The Difference
In the end, you don’t know what you can accomplish if don’t ask.
Attorneys thrive on referrals and word of mouth.
They don’t want to have people out there in the world talking badly about them and their services.
They are usually pretty motivated to do whatever they can to keep people out there talking positively about them.
If you have a legitimate reason for demanding a return of your fees (aside from the fact that the case didn’t turn out the way you wanted), then the attorney should be motivated to try and resolve the dispute before it causes trouble for the attorney.
Showing the attorney (in a calm and professional way) that you are aware of the malpractice insurance point of contact, that you have obtained the forms and contact information for the state bar board of ethics and disciplinary action committees, and that you have legitimate evidence that you will use to back up your claims could do a lot to bring the attorney to the table to just pay you your money back so you will go away and leave them alone.
Unhappy With The Result Isn’t Enough
Just remember, if you want your money back, it needs to be for more than just the case was lost.
The attorney can do everything perfect and right and the case can still go sideways.
If the attorney is a great attorney, worked super hard, did everything right and knows she did everything right, it is pretty unlikely that she’ll entertain your demands for a refund.
If she knows her stuff and knows your claims for malpractice against her will fail, she will probably just hand the case off to her malpractice counsel assisting her and let you do your worst.
When To Contact Legal Malpractice Counsel
If the attorney fees you want refunded are significant (meaning more than a few thousand dollars), it would make sense to do a consult with legal counsel for a consult about the potential malpractice case.
These attorneys should be able to give you an opinion about the chances of prevailing in the case, as well as point you towards resources you can access in order to proceed in your own if it doesn’t make sense to retain counsel.
In the end, you might get the advice to just “move on” and let things be.
And that might help with some piece of mind.
Want to learn more as you get ready to meet with your lawyer for the first time?
Browse our free legal library guides for more information.
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