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Can a divorce lawyer choose to stop representing you?

(© Andrey Popov –

You can fire your lawyer at any time for any reason, but divorce lawyers need to come up with a good reason to be excused from their legal duties by a judge. Judges don’t accept personality clashes as a valid excuse for a lawyer to withdraw.

Acceptable reasons for allowing a lawyer to drop a client include non-payment for services, willful pursuit of strategies that the lawyer warns against, and using the lawyer’s services to perpetrate a crime or hoax.

Getting sound legal advice

Divorce laws in California require attorneys to give you their best advice on divorce, separation, or marriage annulment proceedings. Typically, lawyers follow the clients’ wishes even if those wishes aren’t considered the best choice by seasoned legal practitioners.

Dropping a client can prove prejudicial to the case, so most attorneys will only stop representing their clients over some of the most egregious violations of ethics or non-payment of legal fees.

Mandatory reasons for withdrawing from a case

Here are several circumstances that mandate attorney withdrawal from a case. These include the following situations:

  • The attorney became incompetent to handle the case because of illness, injury, or mental breakdown.
  • The attorney becomes an important witness in the case.
  • The attorney develops a conflict-of-interest in the case.
  • The attorney discovers that he is being used in a criminal scheme.

Special rules for dropping a client

There are special rules that govern dropping clients in the middle of a divorce case. Some of the regulations about lawyers dropping divorce clients include:

  • Non-payment for services and exhausted retainers. Non-payment for the services rendered is a valid reason for dropping a client even though it could damage the client’s divorce case. If the retainer runs out and the client doesn’t replenish the funds, that might be enough to impress the judge if the client had otherwise their funds frozen by the court. The lawyer is only required to provide sufficient warnings of the possible consequences of non-payment.
  • The client engages in illegal activities. Judges allow lawyers to withdraw from cases even when doing so damages the client’s interests if the client is engaging in criminal enterprises.
  • The client refuses to cooperate with their legal counsel. Clients often decide not to cooperate with their attorneys for various reasons — such as not wanting to hurt their children, hiding illegal activities, or trying to use the lawyer’s services to commit illegal activities.

But judges might also decide that allowing the attorney to drop the case would be too prejudicial to allow. That includes cases that are rapidly approaching the trial date and cases where the evidence of client malfeasance is in dispute. Judges can order evidentiary hearings to help them determine the truth.

Ongoing attorney duties and responsibilities

Attorneys remain bound by confidentiality, and they must cooperate with the transfer of information and evidence. If a divorce lawyer has any of the client’s property, such as retainer funds, the property must be returned to the client.

Also, the client’s file must be shared with any new counsel that the client hires or is appointed by the judge, a common occurrence when clients can no longer afford to pay their legal fees. Sometimes, the judge may appoint the client’s lawyer to continue serving as counsel on the state’s dime.

All in all, getting an attorney comes with built-in protections for most clients, and attorneys can’t easily drop your case except under extraordinary circumstances.


Story by Lynda King. King had a solid education in law, but she wanted more than a job as a lawyer. She knew that people needed information and a better understanding of everyday legal matters. She began writing articles and guidelines to educate individuals and businesses. She now collaborates with Farzad & Ochoa Family Law Attorneys, proud that her knowledge and her writing talent are helping others.

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