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Five Things to Remember When Parting Ways with a Client


See “Canning Your Client.”

When it becomes evident that you and your client are not a good fit, there are steps to take to ensure that the matter is wrapped up neatly and according to professional requirements, some of which will differ from one jurisdiction to another.

Rule 1.16 (Declining or Terminating Representation) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct offers practitioners the most detailed guidance on severing a lawyer-client relationship under a range of circumstances. What follows are general measures that should apply regardless of jurisdiction:

1. Give reasonable notice of the end of representation. A client who feels abandoned may feel compelled to file a grievance or even a malpractice lawsuit. Giving a client ample time to secure the services of another attorney can help allay anxiety about not having adequate representation. A termination letter should be sent, leaving no doubt in the client’s mind that the lawyer-client relationship is ending. It would also be prudent to remind the client of deadlines and include a status report on the case.

2. Check local requirements regarding the right to withdraw. Courts have wide discretion on a motion to withdraw. If the case has entered the litigation stage, for instance, a lawyer might be required to continue the representation despite valid reasons for withdrawing. Courts are most likely to deny a motion if a client might be adversely affected by the withdrawal.

3. Surrender all documents or property to which the client is entitled. Do this promptly to avoid compromising the client’s interests. Missing documents might subject a client to an adverse ruling or circumstance that could lead to the filing of a grievance. Resist the urge to hold onto files and property until all fees have been paid—again, the grievance thing. There are other ways to compel payment.

4. Refund all fees that have not been earned and expenses that have not been incurred. In addition to being the just and proper thing to do, this emphasizes the termination of the lawyer-client relationship and leaves the client little reason to continue any communication. Wiping the slate clean signals to the client that it is time to secure other counsel.

5. Take other appropriate action necessary to protect the client’s interests. This might include maintaining confidentiality of the client’s matter, suggesting another qualified attorney to take over the case, keeping copies of documents that have been returned and cooperating with the client’s new legal counsel.

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