Changing horses midstream: the dilemma of hiring a new lawyer.

During my time practicing law, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend.  Many cases, including child custody/divorce cases, take several years to complete.  You may have experienced this yourself first hand.  For these situations, I have to ask myself “does it have to be this way?”  Most of the time, the answer is a resounding “no.”  If it does not have to be this way, why do so many cases take years to complete?  I think the blame often lies with the lawyers.  Many lawyers get so overworked that cases naturally get neglected just because the lawyer simply doesn’t have time to deal with them.  There are also many lawyers who don’t like having trials, and some lawyers are afraid of the courtroom.  Other lawyers hold out beyond hope for a settlement that never comes.  Are you in this situation, where your case drags on with no end in sight?

Sometimes the trust relationship between lawyer and client deteriorates so that you don’t feel like your lawyer has your best interest at heart, or perhaps you just have fundamental disagreements about how to present the case.  If this is your situation, do you really want to put your rights to your kids in the hands of someone you don’t trust?  If I had a client who told me he/she didn’t trust me, I would most likely recommend that they hire someone else.  It doesn’t have to be an insult.  Sometimes a different personality just suits the situation better.  If your case sounds like the descriptions above, you may consider hiring a new lawyer.

Will it be detrimental to your case if you hire someone new?  Maybe.  It depends on how complicated the case can be.  A case may very well have a long and wholly-relevant history that cannot be internalized without weeks of preparation.  If this is indeed the situation, then the prospective, successor lawyer should tell you this up front.  In this situation a continuance would be needed to give more time for preparation.  If you can’t live with yet another delay, then you should probably keep the lawyer you have.  Sometimes judges won’t grant continuances even when, or especially when, a new lawyer enters the case.  If a new lawyer cannot be ready to take the case to trial by the scheduled date, then you should not hire this lawyer.

Oftentimes, a seemingly complicated case just needs a fresh view to uncomplicate the case.  Have you ever stared at one of those magic eye pictures so long that even a regular picture looks like a blurry mush?  Sometimes cases can be like a magic eye picture; you’ve looked at it so long that you can’t really make heads or tails of it anymore.  A fresh view may breathe new life into a once hopelessly complicated case.  It’s not so much that the current lawyer is defective.  Sometimes you can get bogged down with irrelevant or unimportant details while gathering evidence.  Someone who wasn’t involved with the tedium of compiling evidence may be able to see patterns and solutions that the other lost along the way.

Money is another consideration for hiring a new lawyer.  Duh right?  If a case is close to trial, a lot of time will be required to prepare.  I don’t take these kinds of cases without a sizeable retainer (minimum $3,000).  If you’re not in a position to pay up to $5,000, you should look at other options.  If a lawyer is willing to accept less than $3,000 for a case close to trial, I would be skeptical about the lawyer’s capability.  Someone like that would make me wonder about the time they intended to spend preparing, or whether they might try to nonchalantly suggest continuance at the last moment.  I would wonder if they knew what they were doing at all.  The phrase “you get what you pay for” is as true with lawyers as anything else.

Making the decision to fire a lawyer is something you should think about long and hard.  You should meet with your lawyer to see if the disagreements or distrust can be resolved.  Once you are sure that you cannot go forward with your current lawyer, you need to fire him/her.  The best way to do this is by sending a letter where proof of receipt can be shown.  A fax or email will do the trick, but if you like the feel of actual paper, you can send a certified letter.  Sometimes lawyers will pretend they didn’t get notice of being fired so they can bill more time or try to convince the client to reconsider.  Sending notice of termination through a self-proving-receipt-confirmation-method will help avoid this issue.

The letter doesn’t have to be long or even give a reason for termination.  It just needs to clearly state that you no longer wish for the lawyer to represent you.  I would also add direction stating that the lawyer should file a motion to withdraw as soon as possible.  Some lawyers delay doing this hoping the client will change his/her mind or hoping to get more money before the judge signs the order of withdrawal.  Once the old lawyer is out, your new lawyer can file an entry of appearance as successor counsel.  Sometimes an order substituting counsel can be entered accomplishing the withdrawal of one lawyer and entry of the other with one document.

Deciding whether to hire a new lawyer is a tough decision.  Hopefully this article gave you some food for thought.