NOTE: The subject of this post can thank Mark Bennett, Scott Greenfield, and Kathryn Kase for not being named in public. They talked me out of identifying her, which I thought I should do as a public service to consumers.
In the criminal defense world, it is not unusual for clients to decide to change attorneys. As I've mentioned before, criminal defense attorneys are very often the bearers of bad news to their clients, and those clients will sometimes believe that changing the messenger will change the news. Court-appointed attorneys and Public Defenders are frequently "subbed out" because clients wrongfully believe that a prosecutor will be more intimidated by a "Free World Lawyer" than the one currently assigned to them.
Sometimes, clients who seek to substitute their appointed legal counsel will do their research and make a solid decision on whom they hire. Sometimes a defendant may hire a lawyer who is a friend of the family that did a good job representing their uncle in his divorce. Other times, they hire the cheapest lawyer they can find in the Greensheets, because even a cheap Free World Lawyer must certainly be better than a court-appointed one.
I handle both appointed and retained cases in my criminal practice. On occasion, I'll get subbed out on my appointed cases. Sometimes I get subbed out by great attorneys. Sometimes, I get subbed out by . . . well, not-so-great attorneys.
The procedure for substituting attorneys is very simple. I will get a phone call from the incoming attorney who lets me know that my client (or my client's family) has retained them. As a matter of course, they will ask for my signature on a Motion to Substitute Counsel, and I will tell them to feel free to sign my name with my permission. I then ask them to have my former client send me an authorization in writing and I will turn over the client file to the new attorney. The new attorney then submits the Motion to Substitute to the Court, and everyone is happy.
Some attorneys in Harris County, however, focus more on taking money from unsuspecting clients and then not doing the job they were hired for.
Recently, I had a client who retained a young lady to substitute in for me on a criminal case that was already set for trial. Judges, generally, are not adverse to letting a lawyer sub in after the case is set for trial, as long as the new attorney will be ready on trial day and the substitution isn't for purposes of delay.
In this instance, trial was still a month and a half away, so the new lawyer had plenty of time to get ready on this relatively uncomplicated case. She called me and told me she was subbing in for me. I told her she was welcome to sign my name on the Motion to Substitute. She asked for my file and I told her I would gladly give it to her once I got written permission from the client. She said she would get it to me A.S.A.P.
A couple of weeks went by and trial grew closer. About three weeks out, I received written permission from client to give the file to the new attorney. About five minutes after receiving the written permission, the attorney called me.
"Hi Murray," she said. "Did you get the e-mail with [client's] permission to give me the file?"
"Yes," I said. "I'm out of state right now, but I will be back Wednesday and I'll get it to you."
"That will be fine."
"You did file the Motion to Substitute with the Court, right?" I asked, as an afterthought.
"No. Not yet."
"Um, okay. Well, until you file the Motion to Substitute, I'm still his attorney. Obviously, I can't give you the file if I'm still his lawyer. I'll need it for trial."
"Okay," she said. "I'll take care of that this week."
So, I get back from out-of-state and get another phone call from her.
"The judge wasn't in, so I couldn't sign on to the case," she told me. "Can you meet me in court on Monday so we can both sign off on the case?"
At this point, we were two weeks away from trial. About a month of her time had been squandered by not getting the Motion to Substitute in, but she still had time to prepare. I told her that I didn't have court on Monday, but if she called me, I would come in.
Monday came and went without a phone call.
On Tuesday, I dropped by the Court to inquire about what was going on. The Judge had no idea what I was talking about. I called the attorney. No answer. No return call. I called again. No return call.
The following week, I dropped by the Court again and was told that the lawyer had finally dropped by. At this point, trial was one week away. The Coordinator said that the new lawyer had come in and told the court that she was substituting in and would be announcing "Not Ready" for trial the following week. The Judge told her that she was welcome to to substitute in, but she would have to be ready for trial on Monday if she were going to do so.
The new lawyer did not bother to call and let me know any of this. I tried to call her. No return call. I called again. No return call.
At this point, things are complicated. A person charged with a crime is entitled to hire whomever he wishes to represent him. This client wished to have the new attorney and not me. This client's girlfriend had paid the new attorney. Trial was in five days and there seemed to be no answer over whether or not the new lawyer was going to show up and announce "ready."
I called the attorney again. No return call. I called the client's girlfriend who said that she had talked to the new attorney the day before. She said that the new attorney had informed her that she would be in court on trial day, but wouldn't be ready because I had refused to give her the client's file. I asked the client's girlfriend to call the new attorney again, since the new attorney was clearly not returning any of my phone calls. The girlfriend called. No answer and no return call.
Ultimately, I had the client brought to court a day early so that everyone could figure out just what was going to happen on trial day. Understandably, he was not a happy camper with anyone involved. Without going into details, the case was resolved on that day.
The new attorney never subbed in. The new attorney never did any work on the case. The new attorney did nothing but create chaos in my client's representation.
Other than collecting a fee, of course.