The short answer is yes, with a couple of exceptions.
The attorney-client relationship is a contract under which the attorney and the client must perform as the terms of their agreement dictate. As in any relationship, it is also important that the parties on both sides trust each other, and as a team, they are working toward a common goal. Within the attorney-client relationship, you should also feel satisfied that your interests and concerns are being addressed in a timely manner. When you feel trust has been broken, your concerns are not being adequately addressed, or your attorney is not performing under the terms of the contract, you may wish to switch lawyers. And in most cases, you may do so.
When you may switch lawyer
You may switch lawyers at any point in the attorney-client relationship, whether a few minutes after leaving the lawyer’s office upon signing the representation contract, during the investigation process, of further along in the case. However, if your case is preparing for or already in trial, the court may, in its discretion, determine that switching lawyers would be too disruptive to the court or unfair to the opposing party.
How to switch lawyers
Most attorney-client contracts contain a clause setting forth the steps to be taken by either party to terminate the attorney-client relationship. If your attorney-client agreement has such a clause, you should abide by those terms. If there is no such clause in your contract and your attorney has not yet filed any documents with the court on your behalf, you should provide your lawyer with notice, preferably in writing, of your decision to terminate the attorney-client relationship. However, if your attorney has already advised the court that they are representing you, they will need to provide written notice to the court that this is no longer the case.
What should happen after you tell your attorney you are switching lawyers
Once you advise your attorney that they are being replaced, they must return to you any original papers and other evidentiary items you provided to them, as well as any remaining funds you may have paid as a retainer. If you owe the attorney fees that have not yet been paid, or if they were representing you on a contingency basis, they may also advise you that they are placing a lien against proceeds you may receive when you case ultimately resolves. They should also provide written advice of any deadlines that may be approaching which if not met, could adversely affect your case.
Things to consider when deciding whether to switch lawyers
It is always a good idea to immediately make your current attorney aware of your displeasure with the quality of the representation you are receiving, and to work with them to salvage the attorney-client relationship if at all possible. Whether fair or not, prospective new representation often interpret switching lawyers as a cautionary sign indicative of a difficult client, which could make finding a new attorney harder to do and more expensive than one might expect.
You should also consider how far along your case is in the process of resolution, as this will determine how much time your new attorney will have to invest in coming up to speed on your case. It stands to reason that the earlier in the process the decision to switch attorneys is made, the less likely it is that your new attorney will have to duplicate the efforts of your first attorney, which you will have to pay for all over again.
While duplication of costs and possible difficulty in finding a new attorney are reasons to try to work things out with your current lawyer, you should not ignore indications that your case is being harmed by poor legal representation. These indications can include lack of communication, missed deadlines and court sanctions, and the attorney’s demonstrated lack of knowledge of the law relative to your case. When these deficiencies present themselves, switching attorneys may be your best and only option.
Of course, you can lessen the chance that you will need to switch attorneys when you conduct some research before you retain one. There are numerous excellent online resources for researching attorneys including the State Bar Association website and attorney review sites. Some courts also maintain online case indices which you can search for malpractice cases that they may have been filed against the attorney you are considering. You might also ask for references from prior clients.
In the ideal case, you and your attorney will work together seamlessly to timely resolve the issues giving rise to your case. However, when that is not the case and the attorney-client relationship breaks down, you should be able to switch attorneys with minimal disruption and expense when you know your options.