I am often confronted with a client who says he is too scared to fire his lawyer. Apparently lawyers are seen as something dangerous and to be treated with kid gloves. I get the rumour (that is all what it is); I have fired many in my life as a legal advisor and will no doubt do so again. They are six a dozen. But you probably heard the stories of the fellow then costing you thousands more to release your files. Let me explain that part to you.
He is in fact entitled to claim all his fees up to the point where he got his services terminated. That is where the "extra" money comes in and you have to pay it. Otherwise he will keep the files as a lien until paid. It is not inherently unfair to expect to be paid fully for work done. You know when you walk into the local grocery shop there are no arguments when it comes to paying for your bread and whatever you bought. You will not leave with unpaid goods and the price will go up almost weekly and definitively monthly. Every winter the grocer will say he has more fuel costs. Every summer he will say he has more electricity costs to run the aircon. Strangely, when the price of diesel comes down, the price remains high, I have to wonder why. They have many excuses but in law they are moving the risk to you, the client. You pay or you don't get.
I don't get "specials" to be honest. If the price is lowered on a special, it means to me it was too high and cheating me in the beginning. Perhaps I am just obnoxious but if I don't like their advertising either I would not buy the product. In fact I had my own boycott on Coke for years because of it. Obviously, it has to be admitted, to no known effect. However, it made me happy which is what counts.
So why fire a lawyer or any other professional man? The reasons are varied but mostly it comes down to a lack of communication. You would like to believe your case is important and the lawyer will know or remember who you are but not so in real life. I have often seen lawyers trying to read a client's file surreptitiously or bullsh-t his way during a follow up consultation. That is an immediate reason to fire him, if you are not important enough for him to remember you, he has to go. You find this most often at the large law firms who are only chasing money. I explained in my book Tricks of Trade - Memories of a Rogue Lawyer how your file is abused to generate more money for the lawyer. You can read it if you wish to get angry.
Then the greatest reason, above all, is that the lawyer never answers his emails or calls. He simply ignores you and if he does answer he charges money for that. Now once again, you are picking the man's brain. Despite my repeated sayings in these blogs and books that law is not rocket science, it is difficult enough for you to feel lost. So when you speak to a lawyer, it costs money. He is entitled to claim that time from you and they do make notes on when and how long the call took place. However, he cannot not speak to you...that indicates a lack of trust between you and is a reason to fire him.
Professional competency is seldom a problem. He is qualified and does know the law. I assure you, he would not have passed his bar exams if he did not. That is why I am contemptuous of those who call themselves a "legal scholar" who did not actually practised law. Believe you me, a law degree is not nearly good enough and if you are really good you would have written a few books on your field also. Those are the men who hold our respect. Not the law professor who knows nothing of practical law in my eyes. Hence professional incompetence is seldom a reason to fire the lawyer. You have to remember though; the man is competent but not a miracle worker. I said last week that mostly clients have themselves to blame for the legal troubles, don't expect the lawyer to get you out of the fire every time. It simply does not work that way which is why compliance is so important. Your foundations must be right. If you are married in community of property you better get divorced and marry again out of community of property. If you venture into business you better ring-fence yourself properly so that you don't suffer financially if something goes wrong. All the major companies do so and you have to wonder why. Read my book Your Worst Enemy and you will know why.
There is no such thing as honour amongst thieves. We know that, but let me say to you there is no such thing as honour amongst business people either. You will hear people say that Mr X, a famous billionaire, never signed an agreement, his handshake is enough. I have researched this for my books, and guess what, nonsense - they all had and have teams of lawyers getting the compliance aspects in place. They do have signed agreements and they update them all the time and they enforce them mercilessly.
Don't be stupid. The time when anyone would take your word is long gone if it ever existed. You only have to look at case law, going back to a time before our Lord came to earth, to know that people have been cheating each other since time began. It is no different today and will not change. You have to be careful and you have to understand what you are signing. I said it before; a good lawyer is the one who can explain to you what the law means. There are very few of them around and they mostly struggle financially because they are not focussed on fees, they are trying to help.
I also want to stress a point people forget - lawyers are inherently honest. They may be boring as human beings but very few will deliberately cheat you and if you feel cheated out of money or overcharged you should go to the law societies who will help you free of charge. The provident fund will even pay you out if you are correct but be warned, they will not pay for nonsense. You must have a good case to begin with.
Now to the point we began with. You fire the man by telling him that in writing or face to face. No need to be sarcastic or angry, it is just business. Most would have been fired before, many times, and take it in their stride. There is no need to black mouth the man and never do it online. He will sue you, it does not cost money for him to do so but it will ruin you to fight back (another tactic used often to frighten people).
He is entitled to claim the money for work done up to that time and to keep the files until he is paid. You are entitled to dispute the amount and if needs be, refer it to the law society to be taxed (checked). All comes back to what you signed when you first met; you get different kind of fees, those prescribed by law and those agreed to. You have to talk money before you hire him, lots of problems can be prevented with openness.
Once you paid the fees the files must be given to you and they may make no sense to you, it is not Ally McBeal in real life. Files and bills of costs are the oil driving any law firm. That is why you see millions lying around and by law they have to store it for 5 years after the case is closed. Thereafter it is destroyed. If the files are not given to you after you paid for it you have a myriad of legal remedies against the lawyer and I suggest you see another one. They don't cover for each other, as with all professions some are hated and others not. It is no different and there will always be one willing to take the other on. So it easy, you make the appointment and say "Take a hike, Jack. Give me my final account and I will settle it and you will release my files." You don't even need to give a reason why you doing it.
Koos Kotze is a former member of the South African Police Force. He served between 1985 and 1991 primarily as a sergeant in the Pretoria Flying Squad. After leaving the Police Force he obtained the law degrees B Iuris & LLB at the University of the Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa) and was a practicing commercial law attorney for eight years. He also wrote several books on business, law, counter terrorism and security issues. He is a widower and lives in Bloemfontein, South Africa.