Attorney-client relationship can be a complicated one

by Chris Markham. 0 Comments

I dont know if youve ever read any books by Michael Connelly. Hes written a bunch of books about detectives and criminals.

However, I read one book a while ago that deals exclusively with a criminal lawyer. Theres a great scene where the main character, the Lincoln Lawyer, is in front of a judge, asking for a postponement of a trial. The reason? Hes missing a witness by the name of Mr. Green.

Now, this is a thinly veiled reference to money. The attorney postponed a trial on account of the fact that he hasnt yet been paid. Now, one can accept a criminal client without payment prior to trial; there are a bunch of ethics rulings that dictate this situation. Now, while the judge allows the continuance, he doesnt allow, however, the attorney to withdraw his representation due to non-payment of a client.

This switching attorneys midstream has come up a lot lately, with one of the prime examples being the Lindsey Lohan case. Her attorney, sick to death of the circus, and, undoubtedly feeling unloved as a result of her representation of her famous client, decided to terminate the relationship. Then, it seemed as though a recent law-school graduate would take the job. After that, it was a famous criminal defense attorney from Chicago. Finally, it was one of OJ Simpsons Dream Team the one that got him off of the murder charge (not the ones who waved to him as he went to jail for that incident in Vegas). As soon as those rumors came and went, Lohans old attorney showed up once again to go to bat for her client. Why did she stick around?

Quite likely, it wasnt her choice.

This is a particularly sticky situation. Once an attorney is retained by a client, it is close to impossible for that attorney to withdraw from the clients representation. If the client doesnt pay, you still have to represent them. If the client is non-responsive to what youre trying to do and how youre trying to help? Thats not the courts problem thats the attorneys problem. Sometimes you just cant get rid of clients even when they want to be rid of you.

The most effective way to terminate an attorney-client relationship is to have your client sign a termination letter, spelling out the terms of your withdrawal. When and if thats done, you have to request from the court, to be released from representation. Sometimes, even with the termination letter, the court will require a hearing on the subject. See, you cant withdraw if a hearing or a trial is close, and it would hurt the client if you no longer represented them. Mind you, sometimes it hurts the client if you continue to represent them, especially if they dont want you anywhere near them.

However, there are a couple of ways to end a relationship with a client. But, and thats a huge but, sometimes, you could get dinged for ethical violations if you decide to terminate the relationship. Yep, you can be hit with ethics sanctions and perhaps malpractice if you justifiably terminate an attorney-client relationship. Sounds like fun, huh?

One of the most common ways to end the union is to state that you are no longer able to represent you client because the client is committing a fraud upon the court. That is, you know for a certainty that your client is going to lie on the stand. Or that the client is continuing the activity that got him or her in trouble in the first place, like if your client is in trouble for mail fraud, or blackmail or a ponzi scheme, and said upstanding client informed you of the fact that they will continue to conduct their lives in this manner, lawsuit, or no lawsuit.

Then, you not only have to terminate the representation of the client, but also report the ongoing crime to the court, which would likely result in an ethics breach of the attorney-client privilege. Theres no winning that one.

If only life, or legal life in particular, was as easy as its portrayed in books.

Chris Markham writes a weekly column for

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