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Can I Fire My Attorney & Hire Another in the Middle of my Case?

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This might sound like a simple yes or no question, but, as with most facets of the legal world, the answer isn't that easy. This question hinges on a variety of questions, such as:

  • Are you represented by a public defender or a private defense attorney?
  • How far along are you in your court proceedings?
  • What reason do you have for wanting to change attorneys?

These questions are all factors that impact whether or not you can change attorneys. Let's examine each in detail.

Having a Public Defender Appointed to Your Case

Many people see television shows and movies and assume that if they do not hire an attorney, that the courts will provide them with one.  While these representations of the legal sphere may have some basis in reality, they should never be taken as fact.

In some criminal cases, the State will appoint an attorney to represent you in court proceedings, however this is not something that happens automatically. After you have been charged with a crime, you will receive paperwork to fill out to see if you would qualify for a public defender. The typical cutoff for qualifying for a Wisconsin State Public Defender is around $17,500 in yearly income. That means if you made more then $17,500 the previous year, you will likely not qualify for a public defender.

If You Do Have A Public Defender

If you do qualify, the State will provide you counsel. Many people assume that this is similar to having the State pay for your attorney. This is not the case. The State will appoint an attorney, but you are not able to decide which attorney you would like, and they will be responsible for representing you in your case. Some things that you should know about having a public defender:

  • A public defender will be an attorney who is capable of practicing law in the state of Wisconsin.
  • There is a system in place that qualifies an attorney to be able to take different levels of cases and this is based on the number of cases that they have taken to trial, the severity of the crime and other factors.
  • Most public defenders have very large caseloads. They can have over a hundred or more active cases at any given time, and thus they are usually not able to have frequent or in depth client contact.

If you are unhappy with your public defender, there are options open to you. You can request that the court appoint you a different public defender, though you will need to cite a reason for this request. The court has the ability to grant your request and have another public defender appointed. They can also deny your request, in which case you would proceed pro se, or as your own legal counsel. The second option available to you is to hire a private defense attorney who could take over your case.

Private Counsel vs. a Public Defender

A private defense attorney is an attorney that a defendant retains to represent them in their criminal case. Many people wonder what the difference is between a private defense attorney and a public defender. A private defense attorney will typically be an attorney who has a smaller caseload than a public defender. Due to having a smaller caseload, a private defense attorney or their office will typically have more time to devote to communication with their clients, including explaining court procedure, different litigation strategies, the ramifications of different charges and plea agreements. A private defense attorney can be hired at the start of your cases, or part way thought it.

When you Can Change Attorneys

If you have retained a private defense attorney or you have had a State Public Defender appointed to your case, you may find yourself wanting different counsel.  In both of these situations it is possible to hire a defense attorney to take over your case. If you are in this position, it is best to contact a defense attorney to find out:

  • If they are willing to take your case
  • If you have a situation in which a substitution of counsel would be allowed.

Generally speaking, time is one of the more important factors in whether or not you will be allowed a substitution of counsel. As a general rule, the earlier you request a new attorney, the better. The likelihood of a judge allowing you to switch attorneys before jury trial decreases the closer you are to trial.

What Happens when you Switch Attorneys

If you have a private attorney that is going to take over your case from another attorney or a State Public Defender, what happens next? The first thing that happens is that a Substation of Counsel is filed with the courts. This states that your new attorney is going to be representing you and ensures that all new notices and documents from the court will be sent to your new attorney. In most cases, the private defense attorney will be able to contact your previous counsel and obtain a copy of your file and anything else relevant to your case. They will familiarize themselves with these materials as well as talking with their clients.

Changing attorneys can sometimes be a costly process. While you may have a fee agreement with one attorney, they may be entitled to part of the fee, even if you switch counsel. You will likely have to pay another fee to retain your new attorney as well. While this may be costly in the moment, you have to consider how your charges can impact you in the long run, as a prison sentence or a record of conviction can affect your ability to work or be hired for a new job in the future.

4 Comments

I'm facing the same difficult choice. I'd rather lose money than to lose my freedom or future job opportunities. For the majority, money can be obtained again. A clean record, and/or time lost with loved ones cannot once it's gone. I think it's best to hire a different attorney if your current one isn't working out.

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