Texas Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who gained fame for his punitive policies toward the inmates under his care, has been struggling with legal troubles of his own that threaten to put him on the wrong side of the bars -- now, in a stunning blow to the defense, his attorney has asked the court to allow him to withdraw from the case. The attorney states that withdrawal would be mandatory under the canon of ethics that attorneys have to follow. This case brings to light a question that many people probably wonder from time to time: can an attorney just quit on you or drop your case?
It's easier for you to fire your attorney than it is for your attorney to fire you.
Once your attorney agrees to take on your case, he or she has made a commitment that the Rules of Professional Responsibility (sometimes called the "Canons") doesn't make it easy to drop again. Generally speaking, you can fire your attorney and hire a new one almost any time (as long as the judge agrees to the change), but an attorney cannot simply drop your case once a trial has started without the permission of the judge.
To get that permission, he or she had better have a pretty good reason:
- Representation would be professional misconduct or against the law, such as if the attorney were considered a co-conspirator in the charges against the defendant
- The attorney is physically or mentally unable to continue. For example, an attorney could have a heart attack mid-trial.
- The client is trying to use the attorney to commit a crime or perpetrate a fraud. For example, the client intends to lie on the witness stand and his or her attorney knows it.
- The client is trying to do something to which the attorney has a major moral objection. For example, the attorneys for Jodi Arias, the woman convicted of murdering Travis Alexander, asked to be removed several times as her attorney because she insisted on taking routes that they didn't want to pursue -- including asking for the death penalty at one point.
- The client has refused to work with the attorney, threatened the attorney, or otherwise abused the attorney's service. This can include not paying the attorney, in the attorney has given the client ample opportunity to meet his or her obligations.
Why would a judge deny an attorney's request?
A judge may still deny an attorney's request to withdrawal, even if one of the reasons above is given. For example, in the Arias case, the judge denied multiple motions from one of her attorney's to withdrawal, even though both the defendant and the attorney expressed animosity toward each other.
The judge has to try to preserve the sense of continuity in the court and give the jury as little reason to speculate on what is happening as possible. Jurors may question what's wrong with the defendant or what the defendant has done to make his or her attorney quit.
In the Sheriff Arpaio case, the judge may allow the attorney's request because the sherriff has hired additional counsel and seems to be accusing his former counsel of ineffective assistance." Since a new attorney has picked up the pieces, there may be little reason to deny the attorney's request.
Do you have anything to fear from your former attorney?
Even if your attorney does quit the case, you have nothing to fear: your former attorney is still bound by attorney-client privilege even though you are no longer a present client. Whatever you told him or her while you were a client is privileged. Plus, the old attorney is required to work with your new one to pass on critical work or information.
For more information about how attorney-client relationships work, contact an attorney near you.