When an Attorney Feels Overwhelmed: Withdrawing from a Complex Case

Legal representation is founded on trust, skill, and expertise. As clients, we hire attorneys to guide us through the intricate and often daunting legal landscape, expecting them to have the necessary expertise to navigate any challenge. But what happens when the very experts we hire feel out of their depth?

The Ethical Duty of Competence

Every attorney is bound by a professional code of ethics. Central to this code is the duty of competence. An attorney must provide competent representation to a client, which requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

In layman’s terms? If a lawyer believes they’re not equipped to handle a case due to its complexity, they’re ethically obligated to raise the issue.

The Decision to Withdraw

If an attorney realizes that a case is beyond their capacity—either because of its complexity or because it demands knowledge in an area they’re not familiar with—they have a few options:

  1. Seek Additional Help: The attorney can consult with or hire experts in the necessary area to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
  2. Withdraw from Representation: If they believe that getting help won’t be enough, or if it’s not feasible, the attorney may consider withdrawing from the case.

Client’s Position and Rights

Discovering that your chosen attorney feels the need to withdraw can be unsettling. But remember, this decision is taken with your best interests in mind. An overwhelmed attorney may not be able to represent you effectively, potentially jeopardizing your case.

However, the client has rights too:

  1. Right to Oppose Withdrawal: If the timing is inopportune or if the client feels the withdrawal isn’t in their best interest, they can oppose it. For instance, if an attorney tries to withdraw a day before a crucial trial, forcing the client to scramble for representation, the client can contest this decision.
  2. Right to Seek Redress: If an attorney’s decision to withdraw harms the client—for example, if it leads to an unfavorable verdict—the client may have grounds to pursue a malpractice claim.

Finding the Silver Lining

While the idea of an attorney stepping back from a case due to its complexity might sound alarming, it can often be a blessing in disguise. It’s a testament to the attorney’s professional integrity and their commitment to the client’s best interests. If an attorney does withdraw, it can open the door to finding an expert more suited to the unique challenges of the case.


The legal world is vast, and no single attorney can be an expert in every area. Recognizing one’s limitations and ensuring a client receives the best possible representation—even if it means stepping back—is a hallmark of professionalism.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where your attorney wishes to withdraw, remember to keep communication lines open, understand your rights, and seek guidance. It might be the beginning of a new chapter in your legal journey, one that leads to better outcomes.

Video Transcript

Duty and Competency of Attorneys

Can an attorney withdraw if a case gets too complex for them?

Yes, most attorneys must withdraw if the case is too complex for them. Why? Because in most states, there is an ethical rule, essentially a law for licensed attorneys, that says you must be competent in everything you do.

Competency means you must act as a reasonably prudent attorney with knowledge of the subject matter and experience in that particular area. If the attorney cannot perform competently, not only can they withdraw, but legally they must withdraw or get some other help.

Client’s Perspective and Rights

So, let’s say you, as a client, don’t want them to withdraw. Let’s say that you hired this attorney, and now it’s getting complex, and you want them stuck on the case. You want them to finish it out, and the attorney wants it off. Well, first off, just as a practical matter, forcing someone to do work for you is usually futile. Because you are not going to get the best quality work. You are going to get the bare minimum. But setting that aside, there may be a scenario where you have a lawful right to keep that attorney on the case and require them to get help from another expert attorney to augment the attorney’s weaknesses or incompetency.

Ethical Violations and Consequences

For example, let’s say it’s the day before the trial, and you have a three-day trial. The other side has offered a settlement amount that you don’t want to agree to. And the attorney comes to you and says, “Hey, I don’t feel ready for trial. I don’t feel competent doing this. I am going to withdraw.” Most likely, that is a violation of ethics rules because there isn’t enough time for you to go find another attorney to get ready for the trial, which is the next day.

So, most likely, if the attorney did it, the attorney would be subject to a very serious ethical violation, and the ethics board or department in your state could issue various penalties or consequences, including fines, suspension of a license, or revocation of a license.

Legal Recourse and Malpractice

But you might still be without an attorney. Even if the lawyer violates the law, you still might be out. Now, if you lose that case because the lawyer didn’t represent you, you may have a claim to sue the lawyer for malpractice, basically arguing that if you had had that attorney there, the attorney would have won and you wouldn’t have lost.

But those cases are always tough because you have to prove the attorney would have won. And the reason the attorney withdrew was that he or she felt he or she was incompetent.


So, messy situation. What should you do? I would reach out to the ethics board in your state to get some guidance, and they might provide a little help, but otherwise, you will probably want to hire an attorney. The ethics board might be able to send you a list of attorneys who deal with malpractice or ethical violations of this type.

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As I always say, before you rely on any of this, consult with an attorney. I hope that you use these questions to identify topics and questions to bring up with your attorney. Until the next live session, I hope you are doing well. Take care.