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When and How Lawyers Should Drop a Client

Clients have an absolute right to fire their attorney for any reason. They may be dissatisfied with the pace of the lawyer working on their case or even cite negligence as the reason for terminating their working relationship.

Lawyers, on the other hand, don’t have the same privilege. An attorney’s withdrawal of representation is governed by the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

Given how hard it is to come by clients, why would you ever want to fire one? Here’s everything you need to know about terminating a lawyer client relationship.

Signs of a Bad Client

Sometimes, you may not immediately tell that you have a bad client on your hands until you’re elbow-deep in legal representation. There are, however, some red flags to look out for that might point to a problem waiting to happen. Here are tell-tale signs of a bad client.

Quick and Easy Money

You’ve probably encountered them before. That diligent client who’s prepared all the documentation for you and they just need you to sign something. More often than not, there’s usually some urgency to it.

They usually won’t approach the big firms. Instead, they try to find a smaller practice or solo attorney to do it for them without asking too many questions.

If you come across them, run and don’t look back. It might just come back to bite you in the derriere at some point.

Work in Exchange for Referrals

If you come across a client who wants you to do work for them in exchange for “invaluable referrals,” don’t do it. It’s a trap! If they have good connections and access to those referrals they speak of, they should be able to afford your legal fees.

Changing Terms

You’ve met with a client face-to-face or had a lengthy phone conversation with them. You’ve agreed on the fee arrangement and terms of engagement.

Once you send out the letter, you get an email asking you to change a few clauses in the contract. Now, if they’re already that problematic and you haven’t even officially started working with them, what do you think the future holds if you take them on as a client?

No Buy-in From All the Principals

If there’s a company with more than one principal, and it is clear from the get-go that only one of them is interested in retaining your services, there’s a good chance you might get ignored later down the line.

This is especially the case if the one interested in working with you isn’t necessarily the one who calls the shots.


This happens a lot with clients who’ve never hired an attorney before. The moment they get the first bill, they’re like a deer caught in headlights. That’s when it all begins – the runaround. The phone calls go unanswered, and the emails never get acknowledged.

They start doing things on their own until something inevitably goes wrong, and it’ll be your fault as their attorney. In such instances, prepare a note to file and send out an email formally letting them know that you’ve suspended your representation until you hear back from them.

Questions to Ask When Weeding Out Bad Clients

Here are some questions you should ask early on to save yourself from headaches and heartache later down the road.

  • How did you hear about my practice?
  • What is your case about, and what do you hope to accomplish?
  • Why did you choose this firm?
  • Do you have any pending lawsuits?
  • Have you previously had legal representation? If yes, from whom and what was your experience like?
  • Are you comfortable with my rates?
  • What communication channels do you prefer to use?

The answers to these questions will help you determine whether or not to take them on as a client.

When to Drop Bad Clients

There are several reasons why an attorney would choose to withdraw their representation. The most common basis is that the client has failed to abide by the conditions stipulated in the engagement contract.

The conditions usually center on:

  • The terms of payment
  • Promises to be forthright and honest
  • Promises to respond to all correspondence promptly

You might ask – What if a lawyer knows his client is lying? What happens then?

An attorney can terminate their lawyer client relationship if their client:

  • Refuses to honest and forthcoming
  • Refuses to heed their attorney’s advice
  • Desires to mislead the court
  • Demands an unethical course of action from their lawyer

Those are all grounds for withdrawal of representation.

How to Drop a Client

While an attorney can ask the court to allow their withdrawal from representation for any of the reasons cited above, it may negatively impact their client’s case. It is generally safer if the lawyer skips the details and cites issues involving legal fees. They can also cite a generic non-compliance of the existing engagement contract between lawyer and client without going into specifics.

Attorneys who wish to drop a client have to follow certain procedures to ensure a smooth transition. The duties of lawyer to his client don’t end simply because they’re withdrawing representation.

First, the lawyer needs to give their client formal notice of their intended withdrawal. They also have to communicate any upcoming hearing dates and any other information that’s relevant to their case.

Next, the lawyer needs to provide the court with the client’s contact information so that all notices and correspondence can be sent directly to them.

Finally, the lawyer then needs to file a motion with the court to request permission to withdraw their representation. They have to affirm that all the procedural notifications and safeguards have been met in the motion.

Once the judge signs an order granting the withdrawal, which is then filed with the court clerk, only then is an attorney relieved of their duties towards their client.

Work It Out Before Pulling Out

Withdrawing from representing a client is usually done as a last resort. You should always try to work through issues and any clashes in personality that may arise in the course of representation.

If the differences are truly irreconcilable, the withdrawal process exists so that no client and attorney are forced to work together.

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