Can Your Lawyer Just Quit On You?

November 8th, 2016

Dave Albo of Fairfax wears two hats. He is a state delegate from Fairfax, with enough tenure accumulated to have become Chairman of the House’s powerful Courts of Justice Committee. He is also a highly successful lawyer in the Northern Virginia region. And, in the interest of full disclosure, he is also my personal friend from when my brief tenure in the House overlapped his much longer (and still continuing) time there.

Members of our part-time “citizen legislature” are supposed to bring their life experiences with them when they come to the capitol in Richmond each winter. Even so, Dave raised eyebrows in the legal community when he proposed a bill for January’s General Assembly session to make it easier for lawyers to quit cases when clients don’t pay.

It may come as a surprise to clients, but your lawyers cannot just quit on you any time you fall behind in paying them. While that can happen for relationships involving advising or transactional work, for any case that goes to court, lawyers cannot withdraw from representation without asking and receiving permission from the presiding judge.

In criminal cases, judges often will not grant permission if the lawyer’s request to withdraw might result in a postponement of trial, thereby allowing the defendant to extend his time free on bond simply by withholding payment. For this reason, criminal defense lawyers commonly quote lump sum fees, and refuse to begin work until the entire fee has been paid in advance. But because some cases can become complex and therefore, expensive, lawyers will sometimes yield and allow the client to pay only as (and only if) a case progresses on to its latter stages. Lawyers who get burned learn to keep a watchful eye on such situations, so as to avoid ending up conscripted into completing the handling of a case without any hope of payment.

While judges tend to be more indulgent in civil cases, the same risks can be presented there, and what is more, the rulings can vary from judge to judge depending on the judge’s predisposition.

Against that background, Del. Albo is proposing that lawyers be given statutory privileges to stop work in cases of nonpayment, closer to (but not as favorable as) the rights other service providers enjoy.

While we sympathize with lawyers who offer clients the option of paying in stages, and see value in helping people find ways to finance their needs for lawyers, we would stop short of supporting our friend’s bill. There are many ways for a lawyer to protect himself from nonpayment, and the most effective way is to avoid procrastination. The more time that remains before trial when a request to withdraw is made, the more likely it is that the judge will grant the request.

It strikes us that imposing upon lawyers a duty to stay on top of their own cases and to act promptly when problems arise is not too much to ask. In this case, a bill borne of frustration might have the positive impact of drawing judges’ attention to the need not to take undue advantage of importuned lawyers, but action beyond sending that message is probably not warranted.