What to do when you have a dispute with your lawyer?


Lawyers are service providers and are hired to protect the client’s best interests. Lawyers work for their clients and take instructions from their clients.  Typically, lawyers like the clients to follow their advice.  However, not every case where the client refuses to follow the advice of a lawyer is it appropriate to terminate the retainer. As a client, you have the right to terminate the lawyer and client relationship. When you terminate the retainer, the issue of payment for legal services completed to date will be raised. A lawyer is entitled to receive payment for work performed on your case. If the agreement was to pay your lawyer on an hourly rate, the lawyer will render a final invoice. If the invoice is not paid, the lawyer may claim a lien against the file and retain it until payment is made.  If that occurs, the client has the right to bring the lawyer to court on what is called an assessment. At an assessment hearing an impartial third party will make a decision on what is fair in all the circumstances.  Where the lawyer agreed to act on a "contingency fee" basis, the lawyer will often claim and be entitled to a portion of the proceeds of your case once it has been resolved by your new lawyer.


It is always a good idea to discuss any concerns with your lawyer early on and only fire the lawyer after you have had an opportunity to discuss the issues. Changing lawyers can cause complications and delay your case.  It usually also costs the client more money. In some cases, your new lawyer can try to solve the breakdown with your old lawyer. If you decide to change lawyers, your new lawyer will take steps to obtain the file and also work out any issues relating to fees with your old lawyer.


In the event that a dispute arises between you and your old lawyer on any issues pertaining to your relationship which cannot be resolved amicably, you should seek legal advice from another lawyer.  Lawyers in Ontario are regulated by certain rules of professional conduct and the Law Society of Upper Canada can intervene in appropriate cases.  However, if the issue is simply one of payment of fees or believing an account is too high, the LSUC may not be of much assistance as disputes over bills are private and civil matters to be addressed by the Court, in most cases.


If you believe your lawyer has acted in an unethical or unprofessional manner, the LSUC can investigate legitimate complaints, and in appropriate cases, take disciplinary action.