Your nonprofit has the right to fire its lawyer at any time and for any reason.
Many issues can come up when working with a lawyer. If those issues can’t be resolved and the relationship between your nonprofit and its lawyer has deteriorated, it may be time to look for a new lawyer.
Most lawyers that represent nonprofits do so in a variety of ways. For example, your nonprofit’s lawyer may have helped form the corporation, advised on filing for 501(c)(3) exemption, drafted necessary contracts, or advised on trademark protection. Issues can arise in any of these areas and can cause frustration, leading to a deterioration of the client-lawyer relationship.
Here are some of the most common problems that can arise between a nonprofit and its lawyer:
Lack of communication. One of the biggest causes of client frustration is a lack of communication from the lawyer. Most legal issues are not solved overnight, and some can drag out for months or years. Some lawyers think that if nothing is going on, there’s nothing to report. But your nonprofit’s lawyer should be providing updates, even if it’s just to say that there’s still nothing to report. If there is a lack of communication between your nonprofit and its lawyer, try to discuss the issue with the lawyer first. If the issue cannot be resolved, it may be time to find a new lawyer to work with.
Unprofessionalism. If your nonprofit’s attorney is habitually late and unorganized, it’s a sign of being unprofessional. Your nonprofit is paying good money to be represented by a professional, and if the lawyer cannot act in a professional manner, it’s worrisome. Being late and unorganized can indicate issues with your nonprofit’s case or matter. What if the lawyer misses an important deadline? Missing deadlines can have detrimental effects on a case or matter. If your nonprofit notices this type of behavior, it needs to find a more professional lawyer as soon as possible.
Lack of competency. The law is vast and not every lawyer has knowledge of every area of law. Lawyers are not supposed to take on a client’s matter if they don’t have competency in that area of law, or if they’re unable to gain that competency. Unfortunately, some lawyers think they can gain the competency quickly and easily and take on a case or matter that they’re not prepared for. For example, your nonprofit’s lawyer may have indicated that he or she can help your nonprofit file for 501(c)(3) exemption, only to get in over his or her head and be unable to advise on it. If such a thing happens, your nonprofit needs to find a lawyer that has worked with nonprofits and can advise on this area of law. Finding this out sooner rather than later will help prevent delays in your nonprofit’s case or matter.
Unrealistic expectations. Sometimes a client will have unrealistic expectations about a case or matter, even after the lawyer has explained what to actually expect. For example, your nonprofit may have hired a lawyer to resolve a dispute, and the lawyer may have advised that your nonprofit was not likely to win the dispute. If your nonprofit chooses to go ahead with the dispute against the lawyer’s advice, it should not expect a favorable end. In this situation, it’s easy to want to blame the lawyer, even if the lawyer advised correctly.
Before firing its lawyer, your nonprofit’s board members may want to schedule a meeting with the lawyer to discuss any issues that have come up and whether those issues can be resolved. If it’s a matter of more communication, being vocal about that can encourage the lawyer to provide more updates. If after the meeting your nonprofit still wishes to fire its lawyer, it’s important to take the following steps:
Make sure everyone’s on board. Firing a lawyer is not a decision that a single board member should make. Schedule a board meeting to discuss the situation and hold a vote on whether to fire the lawyer. If your nonprofit has already selected a new lawyer, the board members can vote on the new lawyer during this meeting. Hiring and firing a lawyer is an important decision, so make sure everyone’s in agreement before taking action.
Communicate in writing. Advise the old lawyer in writing that your nonprofit no longer needs his or her representation and will be retaining a new lawyer. The letter can be sent by email or certified mail; just be sure that your nonprofit receives confirmation that the lawyer received the notification.
Hire a new lawyer. It’s important to retain a new lawyer as soon as possible, especially if your nonprofit is involved in any ongoing legal matters. To make the transition as smooth as possible, your nonprofit can hire a new lawyer before firing the old lawyer.
Be aware of deadlines. Ask the old lawyer for a list of important deadlines. Keep in mind that if there is a deadline coming up fairly soon, the new lawyer may not be able to complete the work in time, which means the old lawyer may still be needed to complete the work.
Obtain your nonprofit’s file. Give written permission to the old lawyer to forward your nonprofit’s file to the new lawyer and to discuss any legal issues pertaining to your nonprofit with the new lawyer. Be sure to ask the old lawyer to send a copy of the file to your nonprofit as well, even if the new lawyer is getting a copy. It’s always a good idea for your nonprofit to have its own copy.
Consult with your nonprofit’s new lawyer. If your nonprofit feels like it received faulty legal advice, consult with the new lawyer on whether there’s any action that should be taken against the old lawyer. The new lawyer should also review your nonprofit’s file to make sure everything done by the old lawyer was done correctly.
Pay the bill. Even though your nonprofit chooses to fire its lawyer, there may still be an outstanding invoice that needs to be paid. If the lawyer charged a flat fee, the lawyer is allowed to retain a portion of that fee to cover the services already rendered. In either case, be sure to obtain an accounting of the work the lawyer completed and the fees associated with that work.
Firing someone is never an easy task, and it can get complicated when it involves someone as important as a lawyer. But if your nonprofit feels like its lawyer is not doing a good job, or if it’s just time to move on, then it’s important to act quickly. Following these steps will help make the transition as smooth as possible.