It's frustrating and a little scary when you need to change attorneys in the middle of your very stressful divorce. The situation gets worse when you can't seem to get your attorney to release your file and you suspect it's because you are disputing attorney fees. But even if you still owe your first attorney money, or he at least thinks you do, there are requirements for releasing a client's file.
Your attorney usually releases your file to you at the end of your case as a matter of course. If you are changing attorneys before the end of your case, you may request that your file be released to you or sent directly to your new attorney. Exact rules vary by state, but some parts of your file are yours no matter what, and you may have to pay to have other parts copied before the lawyer will turn them over to you or your new attorney.
Documents You Provided
Any original documents that you provided to your attorney, as well as original official documents, always belong to you. All you have to do is ask for them to be returned and your attorney shouldn't hesitate to turn them over. This is true even if you still owe the attorney money, or are in the process of disputing amounts he says you owe. The only exception to this rule is if your attorney places a lien on your file in a state that allows liens for unpaid attorney fees, such as Florida.
Factual Attorney Work Product
Attorney work product includes all documents your attorney generated in the course of representing you. Factual work product includes documents filed with the court in your case, depositions of witnesses, and all written communications between your attorney and you or anyone else if it concerns your case. You are entitled to copies of these documents upon request.
Absolute Work Product
Absolute work product includes anything that involves the attorney's opinions or case strategy, such as memoranda of law, notes and legal research. Whether you are entitled to this information depends on the law in your state.
Copies and Shipping
Some states may not allow your attorney to charge you for making a copy of your file. Others, such as Virginia, do allow copy charges. Regardless of whether your attorney charges for copies, you can avoid possible shipping charges by giving your attorney a few days' notice and picking your file up in person at his office.
Bar Association Assistance
Some state bar associations have assistance programs, such as the Florida Bar's Attorney Consumer Assistance Program, that may be able to help you. They will contact your attorney on your behalf, attempt to facilitate communication on disputed fees, and request your file. Your state bar association's website or main switchboard phone number can provide information on available programs in your state.
If neither a written request nor intervention from your state bar's consumer assistance program succeed in shaking your file loose from your attorney, your next step is to file a bar complaint against him. Bar complaints are serious matters that attorneys usually try to avoid at all costs. If you can't get your file in any other way, a bar complaint may be the way to go. The bar will investigate your situation, channel your fee dispute to an internal arbitration program and produce your file.