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When can I break up with my lawyer?

New Year, new strategy: there are times when a legal change of scenery makes all the difference, writes Nicola Watts.

user iconNicola Watts 01 February 2024 SME Law
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The start of a new year often means reflecting on what you and your family need to thrive moving forward. If you have separated but not yet resolved matters with your former spouse, that reflection should include assessing if your current family lawyer is truly serving you well, or if it may be time to seek new representation.

Separation leads to countless decisions – both logistical and emotional – to protect both your assets and your children, and your lawyer’s advice shapes outcomes. Their performance impacts significant factors, including children’s living arrangements, financial settlements, property division, and future life hopes.

When such high stakes are in play around your family, having total confidence in who speaks, advises, and fights for your interests is vital.


The good news is that in Australia, retaining new lawyers who are willing and able to grasp your unique situation is fully within your rights.

Have confidence that any short-term hassles getting replacement lawyers acquainted with your situation makes sense when it means gaining an advocate perfectly equipped for your family law needs and in which you have complete confidence.

What are valid reasons for making a lawyer change?

You are free to terminate the services of your lawyer at any point by providing notice and paying all outstanding invoices. They are then required to provide a copy of your file to your new lawyer.

It is wise to begin your search for a new lawyer and to get a second opinion before formally terminating your current one. This helps ensure an easy transition of your file and avoids unnecessary delays affecting case momentum.

There are several situations where changing legal representation makes complete sense:

  • General lack of responsiveness: If your lawyer takes days to return calls/emails or can never seem to carve out time to meaningfully discuss your case, frustration is understandable. This impedes strategy and leaves you uninformed about case happenings.
  • Poor or mismatched communication: Even savvy lawyers struggle to connect with certain client personalities. If your conversation styles differ greatly, it may be better to move forward with a lawyer who can provide their expertise in a way you better understand.
  • Loss of confidence: There may be no glaring issue, but you have an overwhelming gut feeling your case is mishandled or the strategy is lacking. Trusting your lawyer’s advice is vital, and without confidence, progress becomes difficult.
  • Disagreements over strategy: A healthy debate over legal strategy can benefit a case, but at a certain point, fundamental disagreement means one or both parties feel slighted. Before positional differences create resentment, a new perspective may realign priorities.
  • Lack of progress on parental responsibility: If your current family lawyer seems unable or unwilling to advance meaningful negotiations or agreements around establishing constructive children’s living arrangements or determining a parental plan for your children, it may be time to move on.
Choosing your family’s next legal advocate

Deciding it is time to change your family lawyer brings a sigh of relief, followed by the question – what’s next? The stakes feel higher than ever when choosing a new lawyer to manage your case and represent interests likely to profoundly impact your family and its future.

Once you are sure you want to change lawyers, take an empowered step back and reflect. Seek out raw talent seasoned by real experience. Find out if they have stewarded complex proceedings like yours previously, and if they achieved positive outcomes.

Strong negotiators know certain opposing counsel’s tactics. Ask them questions about their experience with the opposing firm and, in fact, scenarios similar to yours. Remember that a lawyer is only as insightful as their expertise allows.

And consider communication style. This covers everything from the development of nuanced strategy to gauging realistic expectations.

Details should not get lost between stark personalities. Nor should urgent needs be deprioritised for being emotionally charged. Find a lawyer who listens – and then responds thoughtfully.

It is important your lawyer is honest with you about the strengths and weaknesses of your case. A lawyer who tells you what you should and need to know and provides a clear long-term strategy is what you need, even if sometimes they tell you what you do not want to hear.

The takeaway

If executed carefully, a decision to change lawyers balances potential case delays against the need for representation that constructively moves your matter forward.

While some patience in getting replacement counsel acquainted makes sense, negative long-term consequences are avoidable.

Have confidence any short-term hassles stemming from a change will pay dividends by having representation that is perfect for your needs this year and beyond.

Nicola Watts is a principal at O’Sullivan Davies.

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