When and How Does the Attorney-Client Relationship End?
An attorney-client relationship lasts until (a) terminated by the client, the attorney, or both, or (b) the purpose of the representation has been fulfilled (or cannot be fulfilled, as a matter of law). Lawyers have a legal obligation to complete the matters for which a client hired them, unless the attorney-client relationship is terminated (properly and legally).
Let’s look a little more closely at when and how an attorney-client relationship may end:
BY MUTUAL CONSENT
The attorney-client relationship ends when both the lawyer and the client agree to end it. This is the most obvious – and when possible, the best – way to terminate an attorney-client relationship. Mutual agreement to end the representation (made in writing, signed, and dated, if possible) makes it clear to everyone that the relationship has terminated.
BY NOTICE FROM THE CLIENT
A client can terminate the attorney-client relationship at will, unless a contractual or statutory obligation exists. While the client may have to pay the lawyer’s fees incurred prior to termination, a client generally can fire a lawyer at will. Generally speaking, it’s necessary to tell the lawyer that (s)he is being fired, though the client usually does not have to explain why.
When firing your lawyer, be sure to give notice in writing (including via email) if at all possible, and include the date of the termination, so everyone is clear about when the representation ends.
BY ATTORNEY WITHDRAWAL
In appropriate circumstances, lawyers can withdraw from (i.e., terminate) the attorney-client relationship. However, there are ethical, procedural, and sometimes statutory rules that control when, why, and how a lawyer can terminate the relationship with a client – and failure to comply with those rules may constitute malpractice (professional negligence).
If you have any questions about whether (or not) a lawyer may have improperly terminated an attorney-client relationship with you, or ceased representing you properly, consult a lawyer with experience handling legal malpractice/professional negligence cases without delay. Waiting may impact your legal rights, prevent you from recovering compensation, and harm your ability to pursue or defend against the lawsuit or transaction(s) in which the lawyer was representing you.
UPON COMPLETION OF THE RELEVANT MATTER
Where the attorney-client relationship was formed so the lawyer could handle a specific matter, case, or issue, the attorney-client relationship may end (either automatically or upon notice) upon completion or resolution of the matter, case, or issue.
For example, if a client hires a lawyer to amend a trust, and the retainer agreement states only that the lawyer is being hired for that specific purpose, the attorney-client relationship may end when the amendment is drafted, presented, approved by the client and executed.
*Practice tip: Even if the retainer agreement says the attorney-client relationship ends automatically, or that the representation is only for a limited purpose, it’s smart for a lawyer to give the client written notice when the representation is complete, and the attorney-client relationship has ended.
WHAT ABOUT ONGOING, LONG-TERM, OR REGULAR REPRESENTATION?
In some cases, a lawyer may represent a client on a regular or ongoing basis. For example, a business lawyer may draft, negotiate, revise, and amend various kinds of contracts for a client over the course of several years.
In some cases, the ongoing nature of the relationship may be obvious. For example, the attorney-client retainer agreement or fee agreement may state that the relationship will continue indefinitely, or that the lawyer will handle trademark filings (or other transactional matters) on an ongoing basis.
In other cases, the scope of representation may leave room for confusion. For example: does the attorney who drafts a trust for an individual client remain the client’s lawyer after the trust is completed and signed? Does a lawyer who forms a corporation for a client have any ongoing duties after the initial corporate formation? Whenever possible, these matters should be considered and addressed in the retainer or fee agreement, to remove any doubt and make sure that everyone is clear about the length and scope of the representation.
Even then, it’s a good idea for lawyers to send the client a letter confirming termination of the attorney-client relationship when the representation is complete. Note that this type of letter is not a “withdrawal” by the lawyer, but merely documentation or confirmation that the agreed-upon scope of representation has been completed, and the attorney-client relationship has come to a mutually-expected end (as agreed upon by the lawyer and the client at the time the original attorney-client relationship was formed).
Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR OR ROSS LAW AND ANY PERSON. Your legal rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal rights or claims. Consult an experienced attorney promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, potential damages, and the various legal rights and options available to you.
You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Most legal claims (and defenses), as well as legal and court procedures, are complicated and fact-dependent. If you believe you have a claim against someone who injured you, a lawyer who represented you in a previous lawsuit, or any other legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your individual rights and claims.