General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division The Compleat Lawyer
Winter 1998 © American Bar Association. All rights reserved.
A Disengagement Letter Protects
You When You PART Ways
BY ANN MASSIE NELSON
A letter of disengagement should take the tone of a "Dear John" letter, not a "drop dead" letter.
Regardless of whether you or your client terminates your relationship, a written disengagement letter—sent by registered mail—is essential to clarifying your responsibilities and managing your malpractice risk.
Include the following elements in your letter when you PART:
Position. Begin your letter by politely (but firmly) stating your position. For example, "Thank you for giving our firm the opportunity to represent you in your company's recent offer to purchase real estate. For a number of reasons, our firm is no longer able to represent you in this matter. Our representation will conclude January 31, 1998."
Action. Your withdrawal from representation should not prejudice your client's interests. In your disengagement letter, summarize the action you, the court and other parties have taken to date. Include a copy of your motion to withdraw, if the matter is in litigation.
Alert clients that critical deadlines exist, not the exact dates. Encourage them to seek other counsel as soon as possible.
Reason. If the reason for the disengagement is clear cut and objective, for example, when a conflict of interest arises or the client fails to pay legal fees, certainly include the reason in your letter.
If your reason for withdrawal would prejudice the client in any way should the information become public, then your letter will need to be diplomatic and discreet. You can simply state that you regret that you are unable to continue your representation in this particular circumstance.
Terms. When legal work is completed, your disengagement letter should address outstanding legal fees and expenses. For example, you might write: "Enclosed is a final statement for our representation of you in your legal matter. We would appreciate payment within 30 days." If you are working on retainer, refund any unearned fees with an itemized account.
Resist the temptation to hold the client's files and property as collateral for unpaid legal fees. Instead, offer to send the file to your successor or tell the client, "You may pick up your file at the reception desk any week day between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. following the conclusion of our representation."