Bell/Gaerte: 3 things to know about withdrawing from a case

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Bell Gaerte 3 thingsUnfortunately, there comes a time in some attorney-client relationships when breakup is inevitable. You may have tried to “work things out” with your client, but things only got worse. So what do you do?

You could try telling your client that “it’s not you, it’s me,” even if deep down you know that “it’s not you, it’s your client.” The reality is that you have lost whatever spark there was at the beginning of the case, and you and your client don’t see the case the same way anymore. Worst of all, you don’t share the same goals. You feel your passion for the case slipping away. Oh – there is one other thing. There is that little problem with money: You haven’t received any.

At the risk of sounding like Dr. Phil, it sounds like you need to “move on” and “let go.” But before you do, grab Rule 1.16 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct and make certain you are withdrawing from the case ethically.

Here are three things to know about withdrawing from a case:

1. There are times when you must terminate the attorney-client relationship

Whether you want to or not, and regardless of what Dr. Phil advises, there are situations when you must break up with your client. These situations are outlined in Rule 1.16(a) of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct. These include times when the “representation will result in a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law,” “the lawyer’s physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer’s ability to represent the client” or “the lawyer is discharged.” For example, if your representation of the client will result in your assisting a client in fraud, then under Rule 1.16(a)(1), you must withdraw from the case.

2. When withdrawing, do not make the client’s situation worse

Rule 1.16(b)(1) states that a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client if “withdrawal can be accomplished without material adverse effect on the interest of the client.” What does that mean? That means you likely will not be able to withdraw from a case that is set for trial in a week. Furthermore, it also means that under Rule 1.6, you shall not reveal confidential information relating to the case.

If the reason for withdrawing is that your client has not paid you, state in your motion to withdraw that the “client has not fulfilled his obligations to the undersigned.” Do not say, “The client lied to me about his willingness to pay my fees and I am upside down to the tune of $30,000.” If the reason for withdrawing is that, pursuant to Rule 1.16(b)(4), the “client insists upon taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant or with which the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement,” place in your motion something like “there has been a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.” It likely would have a materially adverse effect on the client to state something along the lines of, “My client insists that I present a conspiracy theory to the court, accuse the judge of criminal activity and otherwise impugn the impartiality of the tribunal.”

3. In formal litigation, the court has the final say on the breakup

Rule 1.16(c) states that “a lawyer must comply with applicable law requiring notice to or permission of a tribunal when terminating a representation.” That means that the attorney must check the court’s local rules prior to filing the motion to withdraw. Some rules require advance written notice to clients and that notice can include advice regarding the securing of new counsel, as well as notice of upcoming court dates.

Finally, Rule 1.16(c) states that “[w]hen ordered to do so by a tribunal, a lawyer shall continue representation notwithstanding good cause for terminating the representation.” In other words, the breakup is not always the lawyer’s call. In many cases, a judge must approve a lawyer’s termination of representation. Oftentimes, the longer a lawyer is in a case, the less likely it is that a judge will allow the lawyer to withdraw. When the attorney-client relationship begins, look for signs that “things weren’t meant to be.” If the case goes on too long, not only will breaking up be hard to do, but it maybe impossible.•


James J. Bell and K. Michael Gaerte are attorneys with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. They assist lawyers and judges with professional liability and legal ethics issues. They also practice in criminal defense and are regular speakers on criminal defense and ethics topics. They can be reached at or The opinions expressed are those of the authors.


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  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

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