California, like just about every other place I have heard about, allows parties to change attorneys for any reason, even no reason.
However, a recent decision of the California Court of Appeal, in which a husband was sanctioned (fined) $400,000.00, raises the point that if changing attorneys numerous times causes a delay in the proceedings, a judge may look to this fact in deciding whether to impose sanctions for acting in an uncooperative way that frustrates the goal of settlement.
The name of the case is Marriage of Simmons. Most of Simmons has not been certified for publication, meaning that it does not have precedential value. Nevertheless, the decision by a unanimous, three justice panel of the Court of Appeal branch here in San Diego, lets you know what at least some justices and judges are thinking.
In Simmons, the Court of Appeal affirmed the decision of the trial judge, who had ruled in 2011 that the case had been “heavily litigat[ed] in large part due to (Husband’s) questionable legal tactics . . . and hiring and firing of numerous attorneys”. Two of those attorneys, according to the trial court, were certified family law specialists who had been paid $120,000.00 by the husband. Indeed, according to the record, the divorce case was started by the wife on June 3, 2009. By November 10, 2010, one year and five months later, the husband’s third attorney was gone and Husband ended up representing himself for the rest of the case, which did not end until July, 2011. If the husband’s fees seem high, the wife’s tab was over $800,000.00.
It is not unusual for people to change attorneys during a divorce case. Sometimes the lawyer wants out; other times, the litigant wants a fresh start or someone who can be more aggressive. If the change in attorneys does not cause a delay in the case, there should be no problem. But often, a change in attorneys does require a delay — for the new lawyer to catch up to speed with what has been going on.
Even having three attorneys (or more!) is not all that uncommon. I know of at least one case where the person had eight lawyers, and I’m sure the record is even higher than that.
But changing attorneys can communicate something about the litigant to the judge, even if the change is made without a reason given to the court. And I know of one lawyer who has a policy of not taking on a client who has had more than one attorney in the case to date.
It is important to not overstate the importance of Simmons. It is just one case and most of it was not certified for publication anyway. And the husband engaged in lots of other conduct that caused him to be sanctioned.
Still, when you change lawyers, people do notice.