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March 19, 2012

By: Joel Cohen

Imagine this: The banquet hall owner calls an hour before an elaborate wedding reception for 200 guests. He says that he can't go forward, period. No explanation, no referral to an alternative in a position to proceed. Or the plumber you hired to replace the pipes in your only working bathroom suddenly remembers, midway through the job, that his vacation reservations require him to fly tonight. He simply leaves, everything askew.

No ethics rules or court decisions are needed for those vendors to realize the potential litigation nightmare they invite if they simply abandon ship. The consequences for you, however, are devastating. You are relegated to pursuing a civil lawsuit. That is, unless you are able to interest a news program in ambushing and nailing the offender on the evening news, demanding full restitution to forefend against daily public obloquy of his place of business -- as if restitution could possibly remedy the damage already done.

Lawyers and their clients face the same potentialities. But beyond potential civil liability for leaving a client in the lurch, lawyers may also face other consequences if they "unilaterally" end a legal representation without acting to safeguard the client's interests. We, as lawyers (unlike banquet halls or plumbers) are professionals, and therefore professionally accountable if we walk away in the dead of night. Just fathom a surgeon, moments into a desperately needed surgery, telling the patient or her family, "I'm out," without having ensured the availability of a rested, equally competent relief surgeon. We're not speaking here of resignations for ethical reasons, or a physical or mental incapacity on the part of the professional -- although even those circumstances still require protection for the client or patient.

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