withdrawal from representation

We’ve written before about what you can and cannot say when withdrawing from representation.  Now a Texas bar ethics opinion adds a twist:  what can you tell an insurance company that retains you to represent its insured, when the client won’t cooperate?

Lonely in the Lone Star state

A Texas lawyer had a quandary.  An insurer had assigned Lawyer to defend its insured in a state court personal injury action arising out of a car accident.  For a while, the client cooperated.  Then — radio silence.  Lawyer tried contacting the client by various means, including having an investigator track the client down to ask him to contact Lawyer.

The client’s non-cooperation made it difficult or impossible to defend the suit, and exposed Lawyer to sanctions for not answering discovery requests.  Lawyer also realized that the client’s failure to communicate might violate the cooperation provision of the insurance policy, and result in the insurer withdrawing coverage.

Lawyer’s investigator finally delivered a letter to the client, warning that Lawyer would move to withdraw if the client didn’t contact Lawyer.  Receiving no response, Lawyer prepared to withdraw, and asked for guidance on what he could disclose to the insurance company  about the reasons for withdrawing.

Silence is golden

You can’t say much, answered the state bar ethics committee.  “At a minimum,” the committee said, the client’s “failure to communicate with Lawyer is unprivileged client information.”  Under the state’s version of Model Rule 1.6, that meant that it was confidential information that Lawyer could not disclose to third parties or use to the disadvantage of the client, including in the context of withdrawing from the representation.

No exception to the general confidentiality rule applied here, noted the committee.  For instance, like the Model Rule, the Texas rule allows lawyers to disclose confidential client information in order to carry out the representation.  It’s sensible to regard that kind of disclosure as always being impliedly authorized, because otherwise, we could not negotiate with opposing counsel, for instance.  But the disclosure here would not be for the purpose of representing the client, the committee said — rather, it would be for the purpose of ending the representation.

Therefore, in withdrawing, the Lawyer was advised not to reveal the client’s failure to communicate in order to explain either to the insurance company or the court the reason for Lawyer’s withdrawal.

The committee cited the  ABA Ethics Committee’s 2016 Opinion 476, which considered what you can say to the court when withdrawing for non-payment, and which, like the Texas opinion, advises that the information is within the scope of your confidentiality duty to the client.

Take home lessons

  • Bear in mind that even the most difficult client is still your client; the Texas opinion points out that there’s no free ethics pass even when the client stops communicating with you.
  • And in the insurance defense context, the insured is a client for ethics purposes, despite the fact that the insurance company has assigned the case to you and is paying your fees.

Money and JusticeOld-time lawyers say that it used to be easy to get the court’s permission to withdraw from a case.  You would just go to the judge and state, “Your Honor, we are not ready to go forward, and I am seeking leave to withdraw, because Mr. Green has not arrived.”  You know:  “Mr. Green” aka the moolah, aka the promised fee from the client.  And, so the story goes, the judge would bang the gavel and grant your motion.  (For a variation on the theme, see The Lincoln Lawyer, 2011, starring Matthew McConaughey.)

Such stories may be apocryphal, and whether true or not, hopefully we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the duties we owe clients in seeking to terminate our representation.  When withdrawing requires permission of a tribunal, as it does under most court rules, a continuing ethics quandary has been how much information we are permitted to disclose to the court in justifying the request.  On December 19, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued some guidance on the subject.

When you “may withdraw”

Model Rule 1.16(b), and state rules based on it, describe when you “may” withdraw from a representation, including when the client “substantially fails to fulfill an obligation to the lawyer regarding the lawyer’s services,” and the client has been warned that the lawyer will withdraw unless the obligation is fulfilled.  Comment [8] gives the example of a client refusing to abide by an agreement concerning fees or court costs.

In civil litigation, the quandary arises because Model Rule 1.6 requires the lawyer to maintain confidentiality about everything “relating to the representation,” with only narrow exceptions, and Rule 1.16(c) requires the lawyer to comply with a tribunal’s rules in seeking to withdraw.

You have to phrase your withdrawal request to the tribunal in some way — but  how far can you go in revealing the reason?  In Formal Opinion 476, the ABA Committee acknowledged the difficulty, quoting one characterization of the issue as a “procedural problem that has no fully satisfactory solution.”

Will “professional considerations” suffice?

The ABA Committee noted that many courts will simply accept a reference to “professional considerations” that are prompting the motion to withdraw.  (Sounds just a little like “Mr. Green.”)  Rule 1.16 cmt. [3] endorses that approach, advising that the “statement that professional considerations require termination of the representation ordinarily should be accepted [by the court] as sufficient.”

But some courts won’t accept “professional considerations” as sufficient.  The Committee cited withdrawal decisions from several jurisdictions that reflected details about the money owed by the client, the specific legal services carried out and other facts, indicating that the court had required much more than a generic statement from the lawyer about “professional considerations.”

The Committee pointed out that Model Rule 1.6(b)(5) and its cmt. [11] permit some disclosure of confidential client information in fee-collection suits by lawyers.  A motion to withdraw for failure to pay is “generally grounded in the same basic right of a lawyer to be paid pursuant to the terms of a fee agreement,” said the Committee.  Also, many court rules specify that motions to withdraw must be supported by “facts,” or “satisfactory reasons,” or similar showings.

Limit the info … but explain if required

Therefore, the Committee concluded, where the assertion that “professional considerations” justify withdrawal is not acceptable, and “when a judge has sought additional information” to support the motion to withdraw for non-payment, then the lawyer may “disclose information regarding the representation of the client that is limited to the extent reasonably necessary to respond to the court’s inquiry and in support of that motion to withdraw.”

What about the judicial officers considering such motions?  The Committee advised that judges “should not require the disclosure of confidential client information without considering whether such information is necessary to reach a sound decision on the motion.”  And if detailed information is required, courts should mitigate potential harm to the client, such as by allowing disclosure under seal or in camera, and by using redaction.

There will always be a tension between the duty of confidentiality and the necessity of providing reasons for a request to withdraw from representation. But Opinion 476 at least charts a path forward when facing the need to withdraw because of a client’s failure to pay.