The Right to Discharge an Attorney at Any Time in California

In California, a client has an absolute right at any time to discharge an attorney, with or without cause. (Fracasse v. Brent (1972) 6 Cal.3d 784, 792.) An attorney employed by a client under a contingent fee contract who is discharged prior to the occurrence of the contingency is limited to quantum meruit recovery for the reasonable value of services rendered up to the time of discharge, rather than the full amount of the agreed contingent fee. (Ibid.; see also General Dynamics Corp. v. Superior Court (1994) 7 Cal.4th 1164, 1175; cf. Huskinson & Brown v. Wolf (2004) 32 Cal.4th 453, 461 "Permitting quantum meruit recovery as between law firms is . . . consistent with case law holding or otherwise recognizing that attorneys may recover from their clients the reasonable value of their legal services when their fee contracts or compensation agreements are found to be invalid or unenforceable for other reasons".) Because the discharged attorney may recover solely the reasonable value of services, the amount involved and the result obtained are significant factors in determining the proper recovery. (Fracasse, supra, at p. 792; see also 1 Witkin, Cal. Procedure (4th ed. 1996) Attorneys, 245 , p. 308.) Further, the services must result in a benefit to the person receiving the services. "'The measure of recovery in quantum meruit is the reasonable value of the services rendered provided they were of direct benefit to the defendant.'" (Maglica v. Maglica (1998) 66 Cal.App.4th 442, 449, quoting Palmer v. Gregg (1967) 65 Cal.2d 657, 660.) The conferring of a benefit is an integral part of the concept of quantum meruit and a prerequisite to recovery. (Maglica, supra, at p. 450.) Allowing a successor attorney to raise defenses and setoffs against a predecessor attorney is entirely consistent with the policy of providing the client with the "absolute" power to discharge the attorney, with or without cause. (Fracasse, supra, 6 Cal.3d at p. 790.) Courts have fostered that right by protecting the client from either an "'essentially penal recovery not measured by the value received'" or "'double recovery of fees . . . by the new attorney and the discharged attorney.'" (Ibid.) That is because it is "improper to burden the client with an absolute obligation to pay his former attorney regardless of the outcome of the litigation." (Id. at p. 792.) Allowing a successor attorney to raise setoffs and defenses against its predecessor attorney preserves the client's right to discharge his or her attorney without restriction, since it would be the rare attorney who would agree to substitute into a case knowing any future recovery might be subject to the claims of predecessor counsel without reference to the value of services rendered in the case.