From time to time I get a call from an individual who is dissatisfied with the representation they are receiving from their personal injury lawyer. Their most common question is: Can I fire my personal injury attorney?
The answer is yes, but switching attorneys has its challenges. Perhaps the most difficult challenge is that your potential new lawyer is not ethically permitted to discuss your case while you are represented by someone else. As a result, I always tell people I cannot discuss the specifics of their case. If they fire their attorney, I will talk with them. However, I make no promises.
As such, I always advise people to schedule a face-to-face meeting with their attorney before taking that step. At the in-person meeting you should voice your concerns and give your attorney an opportunity to respond. In particular, you should ask him or her to advise you of the status of your case—and to explain next steps.
However, if your attorney won’t meet with you, or you aren’t satisfied with the answers to your questions, you should consider switching lawyers. In my post Is My Attorney Doing a Good Job?, I identify some of the warning signs that your attorney isn’t doing what he or she should be doing, which may be helpful in assessing your situation. As I noted in that post, “If your lawyer makes you feel uncomfortable about asking questions, or worse, gets annoyed with you, it’s a huge warning sign.”
You should strongly consider changing personal injury attorneys when…
- You do not trust that your lawyer has your best interests at heart
- Your lawyer will not meet with you or communicate with you
- You question your lawyer’s competence and/or dedication to your case
Ultimately, you should trust your instincts. Your case is too important to stay with an attorney you are not happy with.
Changing Attorneys in Tennessee
If you want to change attorneys, the first step is to terminate the attorney/client relationship with your current lawyer. According to the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA), “[t]he best way to do this is by written letter followed by a telephone call confirming your intentions.”
Keep in mind, however, that the attorney you are discharging will likely expect:
- To be reimbursed for any costs or fees advanced on your behalf, and
- To be compensated for services provided
With most personal injury attorneys working on a contingency fee basis, “your first attorney is entitled to payment for the services that he or she provided to you even though the agreement was that the attorney would be paid later,” explains the TBA. “Thus, you may have to negotiate with your first attorney to decide how that attorney will be paid in the event that you obtain a recovery either by settlement or by judgment.”
In practice, your new lawyer will help you with the negotiation process; very frequently, the new lawyer and old lawyer come to an agreement on a division of the existing contingency fee. Most importantly, changing lawyers should not cost you anything extra. Know too that the first attorney has to show that he or she did something to earn a fee, so you may hear the term quantum meruit, which is Latin for “as much as he has deserved.” It’s the amount considered reasonable to compensate a person who has rendered services in a quasi-contractual relationship.
Once you have ended the relationship with your first lawyer and he or she has been paid, your former attorney must send your file to you or forward it to your new counsel. “Only by reviewing your file can your new attorney evaluate the work which has been done on your behalf and determine how much more work remains to be done,” offers the TBA, which also notes that “[y]our new attorney will also probably want to know what problems existed between you and your first attorney so that the same problems do not occur again.”
Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring a Lawyer
As you can see, switching personal injury attorneys, while relatively easy to do, is still an involved process. You certainly want to stick with the lawyer you hired. As such, take the time to do your homework before hiring a lawyer. As I noted in Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring a Nashville Accident Lawyer, you can check with the Board of Professional Responsibility, a division of the Tennessee Supreme Court, to make sure the attorney you are considering is in good standing. It’s also a good idea to seek out client reviews or testimonials, and to read online reviews, which should give you pause if you detect a pattern of negative reviews.
If you have further questions about discharging a personal injury lawyer—or if you have a potential case you’d like to discuss—contact me at Raybin & Weissman or give me a call at 615-256-6666.