Oklahoma City family law attorney and litigator Laura McConnell-
Corbyn knows what it's like to encounter a client who cannot, or for
some reason will not, pay legal fees.
Lawsuits and family legal situations can get sticky, leaving
participants upset for one reason or another, even if they win their
"Sometimes, it's because that individual just hit a hard time and
they don't have the money to pay," McConnell-Corbyn said. "It's not
that they're dissatisfied or that they're bad people."
Other times, she said, clients may intentionally choose not to
"In both of those situations, we have ethical responsibilities,"
McConnell-Corbyn said. "If we are going to cease or terminate a
representation, we have to do it in such a way that isn't going to
cause a terrible impact on our client."
If such a circumstance occurs in the middle of certain types of
litigation, she said, attorneys must seek court permission to
"There are sometimes situations where I might be involved in a
matter and it's clear to me that I'm not going to get paid, or the
client's going to have difficulty paying me," she said. "If I ask
the court for permission to withdraw, the court may well say no."
For example, McConnell-Corbyn, who is with the Hartzog Conger law
firm, said courts are reluctant to leave clients unrepresented
immediately before a trial.
"I'm a part of a bigger process in litigation, using the court
system, and being involved in that, I can't just abandon the client
or the court system," she said.
Absent a matter where an attorney has entered an appearance and
must receive the court's permission to withdraw, McConnell-Corbyn
said she tries to watch billings and communicate with clients about
their case's status, talking with them about any potential problems
she sees developing.
She tries to determine whether the client has just hit a rough
financial patch or merely doesn't want to pay.
"When I determine that it's a client that isn't going to pay, I
have a communication with them about what's going on," McConnell-
Corbyn said. "I try to withdraw in a manner that will cause them the
least amount of discomfort. But we are entitled to be paid for our
Legal ethics rules allow attorneys to withdraw if a client is not
fulfilling his or her contractual obligation to pay, she said.
Appellate work is a separate process.
"I try to structure my retention with a client such that we make
a new agreement at the start of an appeal, or they know that I'm
being retained for this matter, I'm not being retained for the
appeal," she said. "Then if an appeal happens, we talk again and
kind of start all over again on the retention."
There's a good reason for that.
"Obviously, if the client owes me a lot of money, I wouldn't want
to have an obligation to represent them on an appeal that they might
have filed," McConnell-Corbyn said.
It's best, she said, for the attorney and client to go into a
legal matter with a clear understanding of what's expected, and how
a case might progress. …