Not all lawyer-client matches are made in heaven. What should you do if you end up with a lawyer who is not a good fit? In many cases, you can and should fire that attorney, collect a refund on your retainer, and hire an attorney who is a better match for your personality and goals.
Many people who are going through a divorce or other family law case have to pay a retainer in order to get a lawyer. A retainer is a down payment on the cost of a case, paid upfront before the lawyer takes you on. This retainer usually comes with a written agreement that stipulates how the lawyer will use the time that you pay for, the amount of money given in the retainer, and the cost for services after the retained is used up. Many people never use all of the funds in their retainer, in which case the lawyer refunds the rest.
However, the situation becomes more complicated when a client fires their lawyer. There are many reasons that people decide to fire their lawyer. They may not feel that the lawyer is handling their case as well as another attorney might. They may have found a cheaper or more effective attorney to represent their case. In many cases, firing a lawyer is based on a simple personality conflict. Whatever the reason you have fired your lawyer, you may be able to get all or part of your remaining retainer fee refunded to you.
When you decide to fire your lawyer, do so immediately and in writing. The lawyer still has an obligation to provide interim services and finish ongoing projects that were agreed upon. These expenses will come out of your retainer. Your written communications should include a request for the remainder of your down payment to be refunded. Send this letter via certified mail and keep a copy of the letter as well as the receipt for the certification. This will ensure that you can prove your letter was received in the event it is lost. If you have already enlisted the services of a different lawyer, they will be able to handle this process for you.
In most cases, your lawyer will then refund the remainder of your retainer and give you a bill (although a paid one in most cases) listing the last of your expenses that were deducted from the retainer. This is considered the standard of ethical behavior in law, so few attorneys will deviate from it without a good reason. The only time you may not get your retainer back is if it was already used up. Many people do not keep track of the small legal expenses involved in their case and are surprised to find that their retainer is already gone. You can always ask for an itemized bill to ensure that the time you paid for was really spent on your case.
It is important not to switch attorneys too often in the middle of a divorce or other case. Every new attorney will have to play catch up in finding out about the case and what has already been completed. Thus, it is important to make better choices about your successive attorney. Find a lawyer who is experienced in your particular niche and familiar with the judges and courts in your area. In addition, make sure that they are a good fit for you in terms of personality and approach. Most attorneys offer a free consultation so you can determine if they are right for you and your case.
In summary, most people can fire their lawyer and receive a partial refund of the retainer fee. If you have a new lawyer already, they can probably handle this process for you. If not, make sure you keep good records in case there is a dispute.