Q. How do I fire my family law attorney?

You are free to discharge your attorney, and terminate his or her services, for any reason and at any time. Attorneys cannot require that you first pay off your bill, or that you reimburse them for expenses (including any costs associated with copying your file) before they will withdraw. In California this is accomplished with the Courts by both you and your attorney signing a Substitutions of Attorney which is then filed with the clerk of the Court where your case is pending. Simply download this form, fill it out, and take it to your attorney's office for their signature. Usually they will get it filed and send you a "conformed" copy (i.e., one that bears the filing stamp of the court).

If you do not have a pending case, you need simply write your lawyer an email or letter telling him to cease all efforts on your behalf.

She must return your entire file, except her notes, within 10 days of a written request. The California State Bar will discipline lawyers who fail or refuse to comply. She must also give you a final accounting on his bill within that time, and return all unused fees to you. Unless you have a true flat fee arrangement, she cannot keep the balance of your retainer and must turn over to you all unused funds within a reasonable time.

One important bit of advice, however: Be careful how you time firing your lawyer. He or she is "on the hook" insofar as the Court is concerned so long as they remain your attorney of record. There may be reasons why you should wait until after a hearing takes place before signing the Substitution.

In the event you choose not to sign a Substitution of Attorney - where for instance it is the attorney who is firing you - that attorney remains on the hook until an Order for Withdrawal is signed by a Judge, which can only occur after a Notice of Motion is filed by the attorney to be relieved as your counsel. The motion process takes at least 25 days and you are entitled to oppose it. The lawyer must provide a declaration stating that the attorney-client relationship is broken between you, but they are not required to say why (for instance, that you lied to them or were uncooperative). Unfortunately, however, I see many lawyers who sloppily do tell the court something that may hurt your case or the court's perception of you. Frankly, if they do that it may be grounds for a State Bar Complaint.

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Thurman W. Arnold III