How To Fire Your Lawyer

Terminating your attorney-client relationship.

I have met many businesspeople who feel like they are stuck in a bad relationship with their lawyer and don’t know how to end it. It’s simple. Put it in writing. Like a “Dear John” letter.

If you want to fire your lawyer (i.e. terminate your attorney-client relationship), then simply write a letter, fax, or email to your lawyer saying “Please stop working on all matters. I am hereby terminating our attorney-client relationship.”

Your Relationship With Your Law Firm Is A Contract

Chances are, when you hired your lawyer, you were asked to sign an engagement letter. Most lawyers ask for clients to sign one (1) so that they can check for conflicts of interest and (2) because their malpractice insurance policy requires them to.

An engagement letter is a contract. That contract should say what is expected of each party and what happens when the relationship ends. Clock Tower Law Group’s engagement letter is very simple. In it, we basically say:

  1. We’ll do the trademark, domain name, and patent work you hired us to do.
  2. You’ll pay your bills.
  3. If either of us ends our relationship, then you agree to pay our fees and expenses (through the date of termination), and we will furnish you with copies of any work product produced for you (through the date of termination).

But even if you don’t have a signed engagement letter, then you still have a contract. To end your attorney-client relationship, you need to terminate that contract. The termination doesn’t necessarily have to be in writing, but it certainly helps.

Why Fire Your Lawyer?

One of our biggest source of new business is companies that are disillusioned with high bills from big law firms.

However, when prospective clients complain about the high cost (or poor results) from large law firms, I always defend the large firms by explaining how they operate. In large law firms, a patent attorney is required to bill between 1800 and 2000 hours per year. That works out to be eight billable hours per day. Usually you must work between 1.5 and 2 hours in order to bill one. Young associates are under considerable pressure to meet their billable targets, because failure to do so often means that they won’t make partner or will lose their jobs. So when there is a new client matter, there is sort of a “feeding frenzy” for all attorneys associated with a particular project to bill, bill, bill. Lawyers are working 12-hour days because they are trying to keep their jobs.

This is my ninth year running Clock Tower Law Group. Our annual billable targets (they are not quotas) are about half those of large law firms. I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve had to work on a weekend. That doesn’t make us better than large firms, just different.

Can we do a better job than big law firms? Maybe, maybe not. There are good and bad lawyers at big and small firms. We like to think that we’re good lawyers at a small law firm. But with patent allowance rates plummeting, no patent lawyer can guarantee success.

I can tell you one thing. If a prospective client bad-mouths a former attorney, then I will not take them on as a client. I believe that lawyers in firms big and small are trying their best, but even in litigation, you win only half of the time.

Pay Your Bills

If you want to fire your lawyer, then be prepared to pay your outstanding bills. Read your engagement letter. It probably specifically states that outstanding balances must be paid upon termination of the attorney-client relationship.

Get Your Files

Our files are primarily electronic. When we transfer a case to another firm (which sometimes happens when one of our startup clients gets acquired), we send the new firm a CD-ROM with all of the client files, organized in the same manner as our paper files. We provide an index for the CD-ROM and the paper files. We highlight which deadlines are coming up in the next 90 days.

I lost respect for one Boston law firm years ago when we inherited several patent matters from them. The firm unceremoniously dumped five boxes of paper on our office. No index. No electronic files. No indication of deadlines (and their was a foreign filing deadline the next day). I called the firm to ask if they had any of this information electronically, and they tersely replied, “No.” The last law firm in Boston using typewriters. This ended up creating a whole bunch of extra work (and expense) for my client.

You are entitled to the files that you have paid your law firm to create. Get copies in electronic form. It will save you money when you change law firms. Or if you decide to proceed pro se.

Summary

Don’t be afraid to fire your law firm. In these tough economic times, companies are doing what they can to cut costs. Companies are born. Companies die. Clients come and go. We inherit matters from other firms more frequently than we transfer them away, but we try to make both processes painless. I guarantee you that if you have been professional in your dealings with your lawyer, then they won’t take the breakup personally.


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