Just like some marriages end in divorce, some attorney/client relationships flounder. Since a client always has the right to fire her lawyer, ending the relationship is easy; figuring out the finances can be more difficult. Whether you are entitled to a refund, and size of that refund, depends on the type of fee agreement you signed with the attorney.
The Lawyer-Client Agreement Controls
It is important to read and understand the fee agreement that you sign with your attorney before he begins working on your behalf. You'll also need to read it when you are ending the relationship. It holds the key to determining whether your lawyer owes you money. Most fee agreements are either on a contingency basis or for work done at an agreed-upon hourly rate -- the two arrangements are very different beasts when it comes to fee refunds.
If you and your attorney signed a contingency agreement, he agreed to do the specified legal work in exchange for a percentage of any money you win in the lawsuit. This type of fee is often used in personal injury cases, such as automobile accidents and medical malpractice cases. In a contingency arrangement, you pay no fees up front, and if you lose, you owe your attorney nothing. If you win, however, the attorney retains a set percentage as his fee. Since you do not give the lawyer any money up front, you cannot demand a refund if you fire the attorney before trial. On the other hand, if you replace him with another attorney and continue the litigation, he may and probably will claim part of any attorney fees won by your new counsel.
Hourly Fee Contract
The only cases appropriate for contingency fee arrangements are those in which the client may win a money judgment from the other party. Other types of legal work, like criminal defense or divorce matters, are commonly handled on an hourly fee basis. You and the attorney agree before he begins work on how much you will pay him per hour. Often, the attorney asks that you pay a sum upfront, which goes into his trust fund and from which he can draw what is due in hourly fees as they are incurred. This is called a retainer. If you fire a lawyer to whom you have paid a retainer, you are entitled to a refund of whatever money remains of the retainer after the lawyer is paid for his services up through the time you fired him. Once you fire him, he must prepare and give you a written accounting of the funds and a refund check. At the time you fire him, include a demand for the accounting and refund in the same letter. No formal or legal language is required.
Bar Association Assistance
If you and your former attorney disagree on the amount of refund you are due, you can usually get help. State and local agencies that regulate attorney conduct in each state, called bar associations, often offer fee arbitration services. This is an informal process in which both the attorney and client present their positions before a neutral third party who decides the matter for them. Alternatively, you can file a claim for money due in court. Depending on the amount at issue, small claims court might be a good option. If the amount in question is large, consider retaining another lawyer to advise you.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.