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How to Break Up With a Client

By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

It's not uncommon for an attorney-client relationship to not work out, even with a high-profile client like the rapper Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West. But when Ye's lawyers decided they wanted to call it quits, they ran into one tiny problem: They couldn't find him.

In November, a federal judge granted Greenberg Traurig LLP's request to withdraw as Ye's counsel in a copyright action filed by Ultra International Music Publishing. The judge ordered the firm to personally serve him with their motion to withdraw, but in a December letter, Greenberg Traurig stated that Ye had stopped responding to communications. A process server couldn't find him at any of his known addresses. Eventually, his phone was disconnected altogether.

So they asked the judge if they could take out an ad in the newspaper.

Getting Creative

Greenberg Traurig asked the judge to allow them to pursue a "multi-pronged approach to service," including serving their motion to withdraw via text message and placing prominent ads in two Los Angeles newspapers.

New York's Civil Practice Law and Rules (CLPR) allows parties to get creative when typical methods of service don't work. This might mean a combination of service by mail and attaching a copy to the door of the former client's home or place of business, colloquially (and may we say adorably) known as "nail and mail." Or an attorney can devise another solution — if they can get the judge to go along with it.

Based on this rule, Greenberg Traurig argued that placing an ad in two newspapers should suffice:

"Given Ye's public status, publication of the Withdrawal Order will likely garner significant media attention, resulting in broader publication and provide an even greater likelihood of apprising Ye of the Order. "

But this week, Judge Analisa Torres said the lawyers will have to try harder, rejecting their motion to notify Ye via publication.

It's unclear why Ye is dodging his attorneys (although he has been fairly off-the-radar in general), but all of this got us thinking: What's the best way to break up with a client?

When Can Lawyers Bow Out of a Case?

Different jurisdictions have their own rules, but the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility state that an attorney may withdraw from representing a client for a handful of reasons, including:

  • The client persists in a course of action involving the attorney's services that the attorney reasonably believes is criminal or fraudulent
  • The client has committed a crime or fraud using the lawyer's services
  • The attorney and client have a fundamental disagreement about the representation, or the client insists on taking action the lawyer considers repugnant

Lawyers don't have quite as much latitude to end the attorney-client relationship as clients do. But if things have become untenable, the situation will likely fit into one of these rationales.

In some instances, the attorney must withdraw, such as:

  • Representing this client will result in a violation of professional conduct rules
  • The lawyer's physical or mental condition materially impairs their ability to represent the client
  • The client fires the attorney

In any case, an attorney withdrawing from a case requires approval by the courts. And then there's the matter of letting your client know.

What's the Right Way to Withdraw?

Most of us won't be representing anyone who's in the news as much as Kanye West. But it's certainly possible for a communication breakdown to occur in any attorney-client relationship. So what's the best way to withdraw?

Ideally, you'd end the representation before your client goes entirely off the map.Like so many relationships, the earlier everyone accepts that it's not going to work, the better.

You can also smooth out the process for future relationships by using an engagement letter (like this one created by the Nevada bar). There, you can outline what you expect from the client, such as communication expectations, and inform them that you may suspend or terminate your services if they breach that agreement.

And maybe save the "help" ads for extreme circumstances.

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