Can your lawyer withdraw from your case?

When you hire a California attorney, you expect him or her to be knowledgeable, experienced and competent. You also expect him or her to keep anything you say confidential. Finally, you expect him or her to handle your case from start to finish.

While these are reasonable expectations, you also need to understand that your attorney has the right to withdraw from your case under certain circumstances. One of these is your failure to pay attorney fees once they become due and owing.

Failure to pay

The American Bar Journal points out that just like you, your attorney cannot afford to work for free. Therefore (s)he can petition the court for permission to withdraw from your case if you do not pay him or her. (S)he must, however, file a motion to withdraw, and (s)he must withdraw in an ethical manner. Attorneys must conduct themselves according to the Rules of Professional Responsibility. ABA Model Rule 1.16 gives your attorney the right to withdraw, and also says that (s)he may do so when you “substantially fail to fulfill an obligation to [your] lawyer.” It further states that (s)he can withdraw where continued representation of you would impose an “unreasonable financial burden” on him or her.

Ethical considerations

All of the above is pretty straightforward. Nevertheless, a problem can arise depending upon the language your lawyer uses in the motion to withdraw. Until the judge grants the motion, (s)he still represents you and must not reveal any information that might negatively impact you or your case.

Most judges will not require your lawyer to go into detail regarding the precise reasons why (s)he wants to withdraw as your counsel. Consequently, (s)he may say that she needs to withdraw due to “professional considerations.” Or (s)he may say something to the effect that communications have broken down between the two of you that makes further representation impossible.

The other thing the Rules of Professional Responsibility require your lawyer to do is to give you notice that (s)he will seek to withdraw prior to actually doing so. (S)he likely will send you a copy of the motion to withdraw, as well as a notice of hearing that tells you when and where the judge will hear the motion. You need not attend this hearing, but (s)he must give you the opportunity to do so.

This information is educational in nature only; you should not interpret it as legal advice.