When a Family Court attorney fires her client – or is fired by her client – the relationship lives on as some kind of radioactive toxic zombie, shambling forward on pleadings, phone calls and court appearances. It is not … ideal.
This is especially true in the R.I. Family Court where the attorney-client relationship is almost always strained anyway, just by the emotionally charged, stressed nature of the proceedings.
No attorney wants to admit it, but firing (and being fired) is not terribly uncommon in the R.I. Family Court. Perhaps a client has impractical expectations. Perhaps the attorney just rubs their client the wrong way. Perhaps client runs out of money, or is delaying proceedings, is not taking attorney’s advice, or is conducting herself improperly, etc. There is a never-ending list of reasons why either an attorney or a client may wish to sever their relationship before the case is closed.
But just because an attorney wants out of a case that does not mean the judge presiding over the matter will let the attorney out. When an attorney is fired / fires a client in the R.I. Family Court that attorney remains the legal counsel for that client until one of two things happen: 1). Client hires a new attorney who takes over the case and enters his or her Entry of Appearance, or 2). Attorney files what is called a “Motion to Withdraw” which the presiding judge hears at the next Court appearance and grants Attorney’s request to remove herself from the case. Then firing / fired attorney enters an Order with that Court, signed by that judge, reflecting the fact that she is no longer the attorney for poor, lonely Client. The judge will then have Client enter her own appearance (if she has not hired new counsel) and Client shall represent herself in the proceedings.
The awkward part is that interim in between the moment when Attorney and Client agree that their relationship has broken down and they cannot work together productively until the next Court appearance – the earliest time that Attorney can be separated from the strained relationship. In this interim Client can feel adrift or in limbo while Attorney can feel embittered, stuck with a duty to represent this Client who either does not want or follow Attorney’s advice anyway. It is a nightmare scenario that benefits no one and often causes delays in case in chief.
Imagine if Court is held in a contested child custody matter on October 15th, and the judge enters a temporary ruling that angers Client, or perhaps Client is a bit bellicose on the record embarrassing herself and Attorney (it is surprisingly easy to make us blush). Court is then scheduled for review or some such thing on January 3rd, but on the afternoon of October 15th Client angrily yells at Attorney for the result and fires her on the spot.
Though being fired in the hallway in front of many of her friends or colleagues, Attorney must continue to represent Client in all good faith until the judge allows her to withdraw, which will be on January 3rd at the earliest (unless Client hires new counsel). It is an ugly and tumultuous time for both and requires an extraordinary amount of grace and patience to pass that critical time.
I have seen some attorneys handle it poorly and I have seen some such attorney-client relationships actually improve in that interim.
Either way the process is ripe for reform as it only adds unneeded stress to clients and attorneys who both already have plenty to keep themselves up at night.