Recently, a new client came to me in a very exasperated mood, frustrated that their current attorney had not been returning his calls and concerned that he was not getting the type of service and attention his case deserved. This client, who was acting on his elderly mother’s behalf to obtain MassHealth benefits, felt like he had no options. He was very concerned about his mother’s health and how obtaining long term care for her would affect the family, and could not understand why he was getting the proverbial run-around from this other attorney.
Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon. Lawyers are no different from other service providers, be it your local plumber or your family doctor. Some professionals ‘get’ that quality customer service is part of their jobs, and others simply don’t. However, with lawyers, clients sometimes feel more pressure to continue in a damaged relationship rather than just ending it and moving on.
Working with your attorney should be a productive relationship that helps to ease your concerns, accomplish your goals, and provide peace of mind. If you are not finding these qualities in your current (or past) attorney/client relationship, here are some things you can do to change attorneys or simply terminate your current relationship.
1. Be upfront with your concerns. If you are not getting the service you desire from your attorney, don’t be afraid to let them know. Unreturned phone calls or missed appointments can be a sign that your representation could be in trouble down the road. It’s always good to put your concerns in writing, but having a frank phone call is also a good way to cure relationship problems. Sometimes the issues are the result of a misunderstanding or can easily be resolved. If you still have issues after your discussion, however, it may be time to find a new attorney.
2. Review your engagement letter. The agreement you sign at the beginning of a representation should outline how fees will be handled in the event of a termination. Depending on the type case your lawyer is handling and how much work they have done for you, you may be entitled to a refund of retainer fees or you may owe them money for work that you haven’t paid for yet. If your attorney is working on a contingency fee basis, you may owe them a percentage of your recovery even if they are no longer representing you. If you are not sure about the terms of your engagement letter, consult a new attorney to have them explained.
3. Always put the termination in writing. You don’t have to write them a flowing Dear John letter, but letting your attorney know, in writing, that you would like to terminate their representation is the best way to make your intentions clear. It also provides a written record of exactly when you ended their representation, preventing any further fees from accruing.
4. Get back what’s yours. Documents and other items created by your attorney as part of your representation are your property. When you terminate a lawyer you should always ask for a copy of your file so that your new attorney can get up to speed fast and identify any problems in your case. In certain circumstances an attorney may need to get permission from the court to stop representing you, but otherwise your files should be handed over without undue delay. Your new attorney can also help you with this if it makes you feel more comfortable.
5. Let your new attorney know what didn’t work. Attorneys can be hesitant to work with a client who has bounced around from lawyer to lawyer. The best way to not look like the ‘problem client’ is to simply be upfront about why your previous representation didn’t work out. This also gives your new attorney an insight into what you expect from your counsel and how to best work with you to achieve your goals.