By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
You can change lawyers in a criminal case but it’s subject to the Judge’s approval.
Most judges readily agree unless it will cause a significant and/or unnecessary delay in the proceedings. I’ve never seen a judge stop or prevent a substitution early in the proceedings well before the case is set for trial – or even several months before a trial setting.
Judges get annoyed, though, when someone wants to substitute on the eve of trial or with just weeks before. Judge also get irked when someone tries to substitute lawyers multiple times which the court often sees as a delay tactic.
A Client is Entitled to the Lawyer of Their Choice
The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees right to counsel. In retained or hired cases, it is generally accepted and understood the person gets counsel of their own choosing. There are limitations, though. Counsel must be a member of the bar, counsel can refuse representation, and the court can step in if there are other extenuating circumstances (such as if the court detects a serious conflict of interest or the court feels the representation is inadequate).
Why Does the Judge Need to Approve of a Change?
A judge is responsible for managing their cases and their docket and the integrity of the adversary legal system. When a lawyer files a pleading or a letter of representation – the lawyer is legally and ethically binding themselves to representation in that case through the completion of the case.
A lawyer representing a party in case before a judge is known as an “officer of the court.” A judge, then, can depend on the lawyer and require the lawyer to be present to represent their client when the Judge says so. A judge can require a lawyer to handle a case even against that lawyer’s wishes if circumstances demand.
What Are Good Reasons to Change Lawyers?
This is a person-by-person choice. I get calls all the time who are either upset or worried about their lawyer. When I do visit with folks in this setting – I always do my best to see the situation from their lawyer’s point-of-view. They are almost always in a better position to evaluate the case because they’re knee deep in the case and I’m not (yet).
The most common reasons I hear when folks come to me wanting to change from their previous lawyer are lack of communication, concern about qualifications or strategy, and general lack of confidence. While I really will try to see the case from the viewpoint of the previous lawyer – I always want to make sure I’m not just telling the client what they want to hear. If their previous lawyer has been doing a great job then I let the client know. Even if I don’t get hired, I’ve helped the client have more faith in their lawyer.
Ultimately it is about the client’s comfort and confidence in counsel. It is a bedrock of the lawyer-client relationship.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is recognized as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.