United States: Three Reasons to Break Up with a Client

Mondaq -- Knowing when to end an attorney-client relationship is fraught with trepidation, especially when it becomes obvious that the relationship is on a troublesome path. It should therefore come as no surprise that withdrawing from a representation is one of the most effective techniques to guard against legal malpractice claims.

There are many relationships that have a natural conclusion, whether because the matter for which the attorney was retained has ended (as defined in the engagement letter) or where the parties have agreed that services terminate automatically if legal services have not been rendered over a defined period. However, there are different ethical rules and considerations for those representations in which the attorney believes the most prudent option is to formally part ways with a client prior to that natural conclusion.

These situations may arise because a client refuses to follow the attorney's advice, is dishonest or refuses to pay the attorney's bills. While clients can terminate a representation at any time for any reason, the rules are different for attorneys who seek to end a representation prior to its conclusion.

In some situations, the decision is unavoidable because withdrawal is mandatory. These include situations where the lawyer's physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer's ability to represent the client; continued representation will result in a violation of law, including the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct; or the client fires the lawyer.

One example occurs when an irreconcilable conflict arises during the representation of multiple clients parties whose interests were originally aligned. If the interests of those parties later conflict, depending on the representation and conflict at issue, the attorney could be required to withdraw from at least one of those representations.

The important point is that there are some circumstances when there is no option. If any of the three situations arise, the attorney must withdraw.

By contrast, Rule 1.16 of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct lists circumstances in which permissive withdrawal is possible. The rule covers a wide range of scenarios, including when a client fails to fulfill its obligations to the attorney, such as paying bills or being honest with the attorney. The rule also contains a catch-all category for cases where "other good cause for withdrawal exists."

The rule also requires the attorney to give the client "reasonable warning" that the attorney will withdraw unless the client fulfills its obligations. The one condition common to each of the grounds for withdrawal enumerated in Rule 1.16 is that it must be accomplished "without material adverse effect on the interests of the client."

The key question underlying these situations is, assuming I can withdraw, should I? Because the answer is not always clear and can have serious ramifications, it can be helpful to seek guidance from the law firm's general counsel or to engage outside counsel, if appropriate. Nevertheless, there are some situations that typically merit withdrawal, assuming the attorney can do so "without material adverse effect on the interests of the client." Here are a few.

Unpaid Legal Bills

When clients stop paying their legal bills, there is a problem. The question is why the legal bills are not being paid and whether the situation can be resolved. Every relationship differs based on the facts and circumstances. But the one solution that almost never works is to ignore it and hope it goes away.

There could be many reasons that a client is unable or unwilling to pay that will have a different impact on how an attorney may try to resolve the issue. For example, a client's failure or refusal to pay its bills could be a result of dissatisfaction with the legal services rendered. This is especially true if coupled with actual complaints or other noticeable changes in the relationship between the attorney and the client. This may be a situation for the firm's general counsel and, in addition, that supports withdrawal.

On the other hand, a client's inability to pay because of tough times can be just as worrisome. Law practices simply cannot survive by providing services to non-paying clients. The bottom line is that when a client stops or refuses to pay, attorneys can consider the possibility of withdrawing long before the representation reaches the crisis point.

Client Is Not Being Honest

Not only should the client trust the attorney's ability and willingness to represent its interests, the attorney must be able to trust that the information provided by the client is accurate and truthful. Lawyers rely on the information provided by clients in representing their interests in front of judges, other lawyers, or other third parties. Relying on false information in those contexts—even through no fault of the attorney—can harm the client's interests and permanently damage the attorney's reputation, undermining the ability to effectively advocate for other clients in the future.

Changes in the Relationship

Attorneys usually sense when attorney-client relationships change, long before something actually happens. While not all changes are causes to withdraw, some important ones often are.

For example, if the client seeks a second opinion in connection with an issue the attorney is addressing, something may not be right in the relationship. But if the client seeks a second opinion without telling the attorney in advance, there may be a serious relationship issue.

Another red flag is the receipt of a written client complaint. Once the client moves from generic grumbling about undefined concerns to specific issues with what was done or how much it cost, further action may be warranted.

Turning a blind eye to grievances and continuing the representation without a change is not a solution. Worse yet, it could have the unintentional by-product of confirming a client's concern that the attorney has lost touch and providing additional fodder for an unhappy client. Somewhere along this spectrum, many attorneys will stop and consider the options.

For situations of permissive withdrawal, there is no magic formula for determining when to get out. What's important is that attorneys recognize the warning signs, ask the right questions, and seek advice when appropriate.



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