attorney client relationship isn't always so straight forward

The Attorney Client Relationship in California: Calling It Quits

We’ve talked before about the importance of maintaining a good attorney client relationship as well as when you, as a California lawyer, should attempt to repair a damaged relationship. Yet, there’s still an important concept related to the attorney client relationship in California: calling it quits. Can you just decide to stop representing your client? What are your obligations? And what if someone is convinced you’re their lawyer and you believe that the attorney client relationship wasn’t established? Needless to say, there’s a lot that can go wrong if you decide to end the attorney client relationship (or if you need to clarify that one never existed). In this post, you’ll learn about the things you must keep in mind.

Ending an Existing Attorney Client Relationship in California

Let’s start with the clearly existing attorney client relationship in California. You have a signed engagement letter or a retainer agreement. You worked or you’re actively working on the matter. Something happens that leads you to terminate the relationship. Unlike practically every other industry in existence, lawyers generally cannot just walk away. As a lawyer, you have an ethical obligation to act in the best interest of the client and minimize harm that may come to them. This obligation exists even if the client isn’t paying you as agreed. You may need to get the client’s consent to withdraw. If there is an active lawsuit, you may need the judge’s consent to withdraw.

Related: [PODCAST] Getting Paid Ethically

While there are certain grounds that allow you to terminate the attorney client relationship without the client’s consent, you still hold the obligation of ensuring that you take reasonable steps to avoid “foreseeable prejudice” toward the rights of the client. You are required to give the client enough notice that they have time to find a new lawyer. You are also required to continue to uphold confidentiality related to the client. Ensuring confidentiality while providing the court with enough information to satisfy your request to withdraw can be tricky.

Related: Avoiding a Legal Ethics Complaint: Key Considerations Related to the Client File

What About If There Is No Attorney Client Relationship?

There are times when someone believes that you agreed to represent them. Maybe you answered a question in a legal forum. Maybe they came in for a consultation and you decided not to take their case. Something happened that led the person to believe that they are, indeed, your client.

To help avoid or protect yourself from a potential ethics complaint, you must be able to show (kindly) that the attorney client relationship was never established. This is important because the relationship may be established even without a signed agreement or payment.

The best way to protect against this situation is to make use of written documentation to show that you did not accept a case. You can use email, mail out a letter, or provide a document to the potential client when they’re in your office. You should clearly state that you are not accepting the case. Remember to keep a copy of the email, letter, or form that you provide to the prospective client to prove that you declined to represent them.

Did You Receive an Ethics Complaint?

If you received an ethics complaint because of an issue related to the attorney client relationship or for any other reason, download our free guide on how to handle a bar complaint. Then, consider scheduling a consultation with Megan to discuss the best defense strategies for the allegations made against you.

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