Although attorneys are entitled to proper compensation for services rendered, the decision to establish and terminate the attorney-client relationship rests in the hands of the client. A client may fire his attorney at any time but cannot escape the reasonable fees earned by the attorney. Although the determination of how much is owed to an attorney after the termination of the relationship varies from state to state, a majority of states apply the theory of quantum meruit ("what one has earned"); the application of quantum meruit in determining the legal fees owed to a former attorney also varies from state to state.
Possibly the most important reason for electing to fire your attorney is the right to exercise a client's autonomy. As mentioned above, the client is in the driver's seat in the attorney-client relationship and rightfully so. Although attorneys should be afforded deference to exercise their knowledge and experience, the Model Rules of Professional Conduct requires attorney to act in the best interest of their client and give the client final say on all matters; although the Model Rules are not binding on states, as of 2009, 49 states have adopted the rules in whole or in part. In enforcing such standards, attorneys act to advance their client's position, and therefore, a client is afforded the right to select a lawyer who is subjectively best suited to advocate on their behalf. Another reason for terminating your attorney is the lack of information available when selecting an attorney. Reviews and referrals serve a great purpose, but a client is best informed once they obtain first-hand knowledge of how a particular attorney does business. Individual tendencies, such as accessibility or a lack thereof, may not be for everyone.
For every action there is a reaction, and negative consequences should also be considered. Among the consequences of terminating your attorney is the potential fee that follows. As mentioned above, depending on the cause and timing of the termination, a client may have to pay double attorney fees or have to split a contingency fee among his present and former attorney. The hunt for another attorney and the possibility of starting from scratch may be as stressful as the original break-up. However, under Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.16(d), [u]pon termination of representation, a lawyer shall take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client's interests, such as giving reasonable notice to the client, allowing time for employment of other counsel, surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled and refunding any advance payment of fee that has not been earned. A client who terminates their attorney may also carry a stigma when seeking new representation. A prospective attorney may fear a similar outcome or be unwilling to split his fee with your former attorney.
Feel free to take control and terminate the attorney-client relationship if you feel that your attorney is doing you a disservice. However, prior to terminating the attorney-client relationship consider all collateral consequences of taking action. It is important to trust that your attorney is zealously advocating on your behalf, but it is fully within your rights to utilize the checks and balance system affords to clients, such as requesting a detailed billing invoice or periodic updates on the status of your case. For tips on how to properly fire your attorney, read this article here. If you run into problems with ethical issues, report issue to your local state bar association. Please let us know if we can be helpful during the process of switching lawyers. Good luck!