Bad Lawyer. No Cookie.
Paraphrased actual letter from lawyer to first-time DUI client:
Dear X, You have told me that you can’t afford to pay me to try your case. This forces me to ask the judge to allow me to withdraw from your case. Three bad things might happen as a result. First, the judge might revoke your bond and take you into custody. Second, the judge might not allow me off your case. As you haven’t paid me to prepare for trial, I obviously can’t do so, and you will probably lose. Third, if the judge allows me off your case, the judge will probably not appoint someone to represent you. So you’ll either have to hire somebody else, or proceed pro se, in which case you will probably lose.
In Texas a judge can’t legally revoke a person’s bond for firing her retained lawyer. Not that the illegality would stop some Texas judges from doing so, but the particular judge whose court this client’s case fell in wouldn’t revoke the client’s bond for firing the lawyer. Maybe the lawyer isn’t familiar enough with the court to know this, but at least a nod to the fact that the judge would be acting outside her authority in doing so might have put the client’s mind to rest a little bit.
But, of course, the lawyer’s purpose in sending this letter is not to put the client’s mind to rest, but rather to scare the client into either coming up with the money for the “trial fee” or pleading guilty. We know this because of her second threat, which is far beyond the pale.
Once a lawyer has appeared in a case, she’s on the case until the case is over or she’s been permitted by the judge to withdraw. While she’s on the case, she has a duty to represent her client to the best of her abilities. She doesn’t get to stop working on the case when the client stops paying.
If the question were one of expenses — expert witnesses or investigators, for example — the lawyer could ask the court to pay for those expenses. The Court of Criminal Appeals in Ex Parte Briggs said that a Texas criminal-defense lawyer, even one hired by the client, can be ineffective for failing to apply for court money for experts.
But if the client is unable to pay the lawyer’s agreed-on fee, the risk that the judge won’t let the lawyer off the case falls on the lawyer, not on the client.
It would be unethical for the lawyer to drop the client in the grease for non-payment. Either the lawyer in question doesn’t know this (in which case she needs reeducation) or she knows this and would do it anyway (in which case she needs disbarment), or she knows this and wouldn’t really do it, but is making the empty threat to bring the client in line.
In which case, what?
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