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When DID I Fire My Lawyer? Termination of the Attorney-Client Relationship

A client who believes that his or her attorney committed malpractice (also known as “professional negligence”) in the course of representation must file a lawsuit within a specified time, or the client may lose the right to sue and recover damages from the attorney. The period when a suit must be filed is governed by a law (a “statute”) called the Statute of Limitations.

Statutes of limitations exist for all kinds of legal claims, and the filing periods differ, so be sure to get experienced counsel immediately if you think you have a legal claim, regardless of the nature of your action or injury. 

For purposes of attorney malpractice, determining when the attorney-client relationship terminated can be critical to determining how fast the client needs to file an action against the attorney. That means it’s important to know exactly when–and how–the representation ended.

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DETERMINING WHEN THE ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP TERMINATED

The law setting forth the statute of limitations on legal malpractice does not establish a mandatory standard for proving when the attorney-client relationship ended. As a result, courts have established both an objective and a subjective rule for evaluating the status of attorney-client relationships. Which standard the court will use depends on the facts and circumstances of the case.

THE OBJECTIVE STANDARD

As a general rule, a court will evaluate the attorney-client relationship, and its termination date, using objective standards. Under this standard, the parties must introduce evidence to show an ongoing, mutually-understood attorney-client relationship, as well as activities “in furtherance of” that relationship. In simpler terms: the parties will need to show when–and how long–the attorney was actually and actively working on the client’s behalf.

Under the objective standard, the attorney-client relationship generally ends when one or more of the following occurs:

1. The client requests or consents to termination of the relationship.

2. A court grants the attorney permission to withdraw as counsel to the client.

3. The cases, matters, or issues for which the attorney agreed to represent the client have been completed. This might mean a settlement or judgment in (or dismissal of) a litigation matter, completion (or termination) of a transaction, or any other circumstances which bring the relevant matters to a close.

THE SUBJECTIVE STANDARD

When an attorney withdraws from representation without informing the client and/or abandons the client (or the client’s case or issue), courts often evaluate the existence of the attorney-client relationship with reference to the client’s subjective understanding about the representation. Under this standard, the representation ends when the client actually has, or reasonably should have, no expectation that the attorney is still providing legal services on the client’s behalf.

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NO REQUIREMENT FOR WITHDRAWAL

Be aware: an attorney does not have to file a formal withdrawal notice, or send a letter terminating the representation in writing, in order to terminate an attorney-client relationship with the client. Although many lawyers do send these letters, they are not mandatory to end the relationship.

Clients unsure of whether the attorney-client relationship is ongoing or terminated should seek experienced legal counsel immediately, both to determine the status of the relationship and also to prevent the accidental running of an important statute of limitations on legal malpractice.

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Warning: NEVER use this, or any other article or source of general information as a substitute for an in-person consultation about your legal rights. Always consult an experienced lawyer about your legal claims–whatever the cause. Act promptly. Never delay in obtaining a personalized evaluation of your legal rights.

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