I am often asked, “Can I change my lawyer in the middle of my case?” by people who have already retained a personal injury attorney but for a variety of reasons are dissatisfied and want to switch counsel. The answer is yes, but there are a number of issues that require consideration by both the client and soon-to-be-former lawyer about how and when the transfer of the matter can take place.
Over the course of the next several posts, we will examine those issues, including how a client’s file and documents are transferred, and whether or not and how much the soon-to-be-former lawyer gets paid, as well as what are the benefits and costs of changing a personal injury lawyer mid-case.
Before looking at how you can switch lawyers, let’s consider why you might do so. Virtually every one of these instances could have been avoided with better initial client communication and management.
Most personal injury victims have never hired a lawyer before their case. Their expectations of how fast their case would resolve might be based upon what they have seen on TV or in a movie. They imagine that sometime after the first couple of days or weeks, their case should be done, but this is almost never true. It is the responsibility of us lawyers to manage our clients’ expectations from the very beginning. I believe it is vitally important that they be explained the process and time line for a personal injury case. For example, the typical car accident with a minor injury or slip-and-fall case at a Publix or Starbucks could take between six months and a year to resolve without filing a lawsuit. If a lawsuit is filed, an injury case can lumber slowly through the court system for years before a trial, and then a year or two more for an appeal, only to then start again with another possible appeal, causing some personal injury cases in Florida to go on and on for a decade.
Unbelievably, the most common complaint heard from clients of other lawyers wanting to switch is that their current lawyer simply does not respond to their phone calls or emails regarding the status of their cases. When I am told this, if I know the other lawyer, I will ask the clients if they would prefer that I call their lawyer and simply advise him or her to contact them.
Not returning a client’s phone call or email is not only bad business; it can potentially lead to the filing of an ethics grievance with the Florida Bar. The Florida Bar has very specific rules about keeping our clients informed about the progress of their matters. In fact the Florida Bar’s Ethics Code’s preamble states, “In all professional functions a lawyer should be competent, prompt, and diligent. A lawyer should maintain communication with a client concerning the representation.”
If you have a case and have left more than three or four voice messages over the course of more than a week or two without a return call, I would suggest sending a letter and/or email to that lawyer. If you still are not contacted, The Florida Bar can often be of assistance. They can be contacted by phone at: 850-561-5000. No lawyer likes to receive a communication from the Florida Bar about a disgruntled client, but there may be perfectly reasonable or even unfortunate reasons why your calls have been ignored. I urge anyone that does not receive a return call not to automatically assume the lawyer is ignoring you; he or she may be out of town, in trial, or had a family or health-related emergency. Either way, if a reasonable time period elapses without a return call, contacting the Florida Bar is an alternative.
In our Miami civil law office, my rule is that client calls are returned by the close of business the day the call is received. Our lawyers work every day, seven days a week, and will return urgent messages late at night and on weekends. After all, being a lawyer is supposed to entail providing legal service.
Occasionally clients can abuse the service by repeatedly emailing and calling; when and if this occurs, we will let our clients know that we cannot provide them the level of service they are seeking. That is why it is important at the very inception of our representation that we explain there will be times when we will need to speak and meet with our clients daily, even several times a day. But there may also be periods when little to nothing is happening on their cases, and that there really won’t be much to discuss other than the weather.
In our next segment we will address another common reason a personal injury client may want to change lawyers–dissatisfaction with the current offer. In the meantime, if you currently have a claim pending with another lawyer and are unable to contact him or her, please first try sending a letter and/ or an email before contacting the Florida Bar. If you are client of mine, and need to reach me, here is my email: email@example.com