This post deals with a recent lawsuit filed against GAL by his former firm over ethical conduct by that firm. You may recall that there were a number of cases that came with me when I left my old law firm. I have paid well into six figures to my old firm and quantum meruit fee splits since I left. But there was one case I settled recently where it appears the old firm is not entitled to a quantum meruit fee. The case involves a young girl who was seriously injured in an auto accident. I represented her at my old firm and developed a very close relationship with the family. After I told my partners that I was leaving the firm, there was not much doubt about whom this client would select as her attorney moving forward. Consistent with the rules of professional conduct, a joint letter was drafted to each client indicating that I was departing the firm and allowing them to circle which firm they wanted to represent them moving forward. We had agreed that I would not contact these clients. The letter would indicate that the client could call me or the old firm with any questions.
One letter, however, never saw the mailbox. It turns out that a named partner in the firm intercepted the letter and threw it away. A couple of weeks after I had left the firm, I received a call from the client’s mother indicating that the client was extremely upset and quitting the case. When I inquired as to why she was quitting, the mother told me that she was extremely upset that she could not have me as her attorney. It turns out that the named partner from my old firm had called her up after throwing away the letter and indicated that she had a contract with the firm and that she would be reassigned to another attorney at the firm. Implicitly or explicitly, the client was led to believe that she had no choice of counsel.
It was a bold power play made by an attorney who literally had no relationship with this young, vulnerable and scared client. The lawyer’s contact had caused such extreme distress to this young lady, that she spent days crying. I am certain she wondered as to why I never told her that I was leaving the firm. How could she trust me if I didn’t even care enough about her to let her know I was departing? Of course, I did not know that the letter I had signed had been intercepted and thrown out by the partner.
After the case settled, I wrote a very nice letter to my contact at the old firm noting that there was an outstanding issue as to their entitlement to a fee. I told them that I had never heard the partner’s side of the story and invited him to contact me so we can discuss what had occurred. Instead, my old firm filed lawsuit, serving me by hand on Friday afternoon, just prior to leaving for the weekend on my tenth wedding anniversary.
I am sure that it is beyond their comprehension that they don’t get paid on cases where they have breached their ethical duty to the client and then fired. As in most states, the state I practice denies firms any quantum meruit claim on cases where they are terminated with just cause. But my old firm can only think in terms of what they’re entitled to. In addition to counting every penny on billable cases, they apparently were outraged by this suggestion that they might be denied their fee. In the firm’s 30-year history, many attorneys have left the firm under contentious circumstances. None has been sued before.
I find it interesting that they ended up doing what I didn’t have the guts to do. I could have sued and asked a court to deny them their fee. I don’t want to have to be the one decide whether or not they are still entitled to a fee. I would love to have a jury decide that issue. I would love to get the issue in front of a local jury.
I figured they would propose some sort of resolution or arbitration in order to avoid airing their dirty laundry in public. But it occurs to me know that they don’t view what they did as wrong or bad. To them, there is no client. It is only fees. They are so blind to any other consideration that they can’t see what they have now done to themselves.
In my perfect world, a local jury in front of our local court would have decided this issue. They’ve set the table and I can hardly wait to see what kind of meal is served up by Lady Justice. (Of course, their quantum meruit portion sits in the trust account waiting resolution).