Probably every plaintiff and injury lawyer has had the experience of being fired by a client. Clients have the right to do this for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. Premature termination of the representing lawyer occurs most often due to a breakdown in communications, for example repeated attempts by a client to meet with or speak with the lawyer in order to get a sense of the direction of the file and next steps to be taken, which meet with frustration over an extended period of time.
The remedy for this form of premature termination is to have reasonably good communications with clients, which after all is their expectation and their right. Most of the communication does not have to be done by the lawyer, rather it can be carried out to client satisfaction by a trained assistant. But if a reasonable level of communication is in effect, termination of the lawyer’s representation should not occur by reason of breakdown in communication.
The other source of premature termination is the difficult client. Some clients have unrealistically high expectations of outcome, are very demanding of their lawyer and staff time, impossible to satisfy, and manipulative. The best remedy for this situation for lawyers is to avoid taking on the difficult client at the beginning, but a few clients from hell may slip through the screen.
If the preceding and successor law firms both have signed contingency fee agreements with the client who moves the file, involving representation in the same cause, then two contingent fee agreements subsist. The client continues to be bound to make payment pursuant to the original written contingency fee agreement upon the matter closing. The difficulty arises in fixing a number on the value created by the preceding lawyer, which really can’t be done until the financial outcome of the file is known.
The preceding lawyer will probably not be paid for the value he created as a preceding lawyer, and while he is entitled to insist on payment of any accrued disbursements from the successor law firm – why should the preceding law firm finance the case for the successor law firm? – one solution for the preceding lawyer is to make an effort to get a written agreement from successor counsel as to the division of the ultimate fee, say 25%/75% or whatever, and agreement that payment will be protected by the successor.
If the successor lawyer is obtuse about this, the preceding lawyer can take out an appointment with an assessment officer and this usually produces agreement a day or two before the date of the appointment.