What Do You Do When Your Lawyer Leaves the Firm or Your Law Firm Breaks Up?

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

“Do you know how copper wire was invented? Two lawyers were fighting over a penny.
− Unattributed joke seen online.

I don’t understand why lawyers get prominent placement in newspaper announcements of new hires and employment moves. We’re not a big deal. Maybe it’s because we can be such drama queens in our relationships with other lawyers.

Every now and then, some law firm will break up rancorously, or some lawyer will leave a firm acrimoniously. It’s always sensational news. Why not the same interest when accountants or florists break up? Beats me.

Regardless of whether you find lawyer-breakup drama entertaining, know your rights when the break involves a lawyer or law firm representing you. Below are answers to frequently asked questions about that situation.

Q: Who represents you after a lawyer leaves a firm or a law firm breaks up?

A: You get to choose your lawyer at all times. In fact, you can fire your lawyer or law firm at any time even outside of departures and breakups.

You can stick with the individual lawyer who represented you, or you can stay with the firm that the lawyer left, or you can hire a different lawyer or firm altogether. No lawyer or firm can force you to stick with them.

The departing lawyer and firm are supposed to try to agree on a joint, written communication that advises you of this choice. The same applies for dissolving law firms. But if they can’t agree, any lawyer or law firm contacting you after the breakup is supposed to advise you of those three options.

Q: A lawyer representing me has left his or her law firm. How do I find that lawyer?

A: That law firm must give you the phone number and address of that lawyer without giving you the runaround.

Q: I’m getting pressured by the firm or by the departed lawyer for my business. What can I do?

A: It’s generally unethical for the departed lawyer, or the old law firm, or for any lawyer to pressure you for your business. Cut that off and assess your options as to which lawyer or firm you want to represent you. If unwanted pressure continues, contact the Virginia State Bar.

Q: What if my lawyer or law firm doesn’t want to represent me anymore?

A: Generally, you can’t force a lawyer or law firm to take or keep you as a client. Yet, a lawyer must get permission from the court before withdrawing from ongoing litigation. Also, there are ethical limitations on a lawyer withdrawing from representing you on short notice if that would leave you in the lurch.

Yet, if you are past due on legal fees owed to your lawyer or firm, there’s a good chance that lawyer or firm will try to use the breakup or departure as a good time to get rid of you as a client. You can’t force a lawyer or firm to keep representing you indefinitely. They won’t if you don’t pay what you owe, on time.

Q: What happens to the file on my case? How can I make certain it gets in a timely fashion to the lawyer who will represent me?

A: A lawyer or law firm cannot hold your file hostage. You may get it back at any time or have it sent promptly to the new lawyer who will represent you. A lawyer or firm can’t require that you receive a sales pitch before releasing the file. A lawyer or firm can’t even condition the release of the file on your paying any outstanding legal fees. Just give clear instructions on which lawyer or firm will represent you going forward and the file should follow promptly.

Q: I prepaid legal fees or costs. Can I get that back? What happens to that money?

A: A firm must refund your legal fees that have not yet been earned and prepaid costs that have not be disbursed.

Q: My lawyer was representing me on a contingency fee basis? Does that change anything?

A: No, the rules stated above still apply. A contingency fee is where the lawyer gets a share of the money recovered rather than you paying fees to the lawyer. The lawyer you drop probably will still get a piece of any money awarded eventually. You would have to find a new lawyer willing to take your case on a contingency fee basis who accepts that fee situation.

“A man is innocent until proven broke.” – Original author unknown.

Written on June 17, 2016
by John B. Farmer

© 2016 Leading-Edge Law Group, PLC. All rights reserved.