When does a divorce case end for attorney?

Q. I got divorced six years ago and it was really complicated.  We have a special needs child, parenting is really difficult, the assets are complicated, and the income structures are complicated.  Also, my ex is a jerk. Since the divorce ended, we have had to take my ex back to court three times – two contempts and a modification.  I have had the same lawyer since the beginning.

My ex is in contempt again.  My lawyer’s secretary just called me back and said they cannot help me, and I need to hire a different lawyer.  I do not understand how they can just refuse my case.  She has been my lawyer since the beginning, and she knows all of the complicated facts.  If I hire someone else for this piece, it will cost me a ton of money to educate a new lawyer on the history.  Isn’t it unethical to just quit a case like this?

A. It makes complete sense that you want to return to your prior lawyer each time you have to take your ex back to court for some violation or to change something.  You are comfortable with her, and she knows your case.  It is not unethical for a lawyer to refuse future representation of a former client and she has no obligation to continue to represent you for eternity.

Consider how many cases a lawyer can take on at one time given the number of hours in the day and the ethical obligation to be responsive to each client, meet court deadlines and the like.  If every client a lawyer ever takes on has an ongoing right to come back every time something arises, the lawyer would never be able to meet their obligations to the clients.

A case ends when a judgment is entered.  Often there is a little bit of cleanup work on the back side to implement the judgment.  Beyond that, the lawyer has no ongoing obligation once a case ends.

Often lawyers feel obligated to represent former clients repeatedly but do not necessarily have the time to do so.  That representation is taken on out of a sense of loyalty especially in the high conflict or particularly complex cases.

Another thing to consider in a high conflict case is lawyer burnout.  Your lawyer has handled four separate cases for you.  If your ex is as difficult as you say, your lawyer may not have the stamina for round five.  And if she doesn’t, you are far better served by hiring a fresh set of eyes.

Email questions to whickey@brickjones.com

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