Show Me The Money: Lawyers May Withdraw If Not Paid Fees

The American Bar Association released Formal Opinion 476, which addresses whether a lawyer can withdraw from a civil case because a client failed to pay the lawyer’s fees, without jeopardizing the duty of confidentiality and balancing this with information that the Court would need to consider granting a lawyer’s motion to withdraw. Withdrawal from a case in any instance invokes ABA Model Rule 1.6—Confidentiality of Information—however, lawyers may choose to withdraw from a case under Rule 1.16(b): Declining or Terminating Representation.

Failure to pay a lawyer’s fees is one reason a lawyer may withdraw from a civil litigation matter under 1.16(b)(5). A lawyer cannot go too in-depth and disclose confidential client information in motions for withdrawal, but previous opinions and Comment 16 to Rule 1.6 permit a lawyer to advise the court that “professional considerations” require withdrawing from the case.

Trial court judges also have to be aware of this balancing act between confidentiality and withdrawal because of unpaid fees. Judges have wide discretion in ruling on such motions. Along with considering the lawyer’s reasons, judges must consider the Court’s calendar and how the withdrawal will impact the parties to the case. Withdrawal motions are less problematic in earlier stages of litigation when these factors (along with the reasons the lawyer provides) are considered; when the case is further along and the trial is approaching, it falls more to the judge’s discretion.

In order to avoid breaching confidentiality when withdrawing over unpaid fees, a lawyer could vaguely reference “professional considerations” with no client information and persuade the court that more is not necessary. Or, if needed the lawyer may submit information deemed reasonably necessary by the court to minimize disclosure if it is appropriate. Lawyers and judges must cooperate in order to protect client confidentiality in motions for withdrawal.

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