From R. Kelly to Trump: Why lawyers quit, and what it could say about their clients

CHICAGO – In the array of former President Donald Trump’s lawsuits, lawyers have come and gone — about seven or eight teams of them. And singer R. Kelly’s criminal cases around his alleged sexual offenses have seen a similar, albeit smaller, revolving door of lawyers quitting and being fired.

Lawyers withdrawing is fairly commonplace, but it “raises some red flags” and questions about why they did leave, according to Nicole Hallett, associate clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago. But can we know for sure why lawyers leave? And what might the reasons reveal about the cases — and the people — these lawyers were defending?

The short answer is that you can never really know for certain, said Hallett. Lawyers are duty-bound to follow rules regarding client confidentiality and the client’s best interests. Revealing why a lawyer left a case could count as having “material adverse effect on the interests of the client,” according to standards set by the American Bar Association. As a result, lawyers are usually “pretty circumspect” about revealing why they left a client and it’s often the case that even judges don’t know the reasons for withdrawal, said Hallett — but you can usually make an “educated guess.”

Broadly speaking, lawyers quit a case for two reasons: They are ethically obligated to (such as when a lawyer has discovered that a client plans to lie on the stand), or it’s a personal decision.

This personal type of withdrawal makes speculation about the why of it all more complicated, because there are “so many reasons” for a lawyer to leave, according to attorney Maria Barlow, who owns a law firm on Chicago’s South Side and ran for Cook County Commissioner of the 4th District in 2018.

The generally accepted reasons, outlined by the ABA, include a belief that the lawyer’s client is using their services in a “criminal or fraudulent” way; inherent disagreement with the client’s “repugnant” actions; and perhaps more straightforwardly, if the lawyer isn’t getting paid. But this list’s final item — which leaves room for if “other good cause for withdrawal exists” — creates even more ambiguity that further dashes one’s hopes of being able to guess why a lawyer left a case.

But Trump’s case could be more revealing: it is “unusual” when numerous lawyers withdraw from the same client, said Hallett,; a revolving door of lawyers could suggest that there is something about that particular client that makes them difficult to defend. Although she acknowledged it was hard to speculate over the plethora of potential reasons, Hallett referred back to the idea of lawyers leaving due to “repugnant” actions taken by a client, which she said “might be relevant to Trump’s situation.”

In attorney Barlow’s view, both R. Kelly and Trump’s lawyers are “leaving for money (reasons), trust me”; the process is expensive and people run out of money, she said. But she added that it could also be that they weren’t getting along with Trump, or that he wasn’t listening to his lawyers.

The high-profile nature of the case also has an effect, noted Barlow: Although a case focuses on its defendant as the main player, the lawyer’s “name is still tied to it” and if the case goes wrong, “that could be career suicide,” she said.

With criminal cases such as R. Kelly’s, said U. of C. professor Hallett, it is common for clients to be “unhappy” with their lawyers — “criminal defense lawyers often have lots of bad news to give to their clients” and clients can take out their frustration by firing the lawyer. When defendants have the money, they will run through the rounds of attorneys, as can potentially be seen with Trump and R. Kelly. And it often has to be totally new teams of lawyers, as they have to have the same vision and work well together: in R. Kelly’s case, the two new lawyers the singer brought in caused the remaining pair of old lawyers he had to leave.

“It sounds like old lawyers read the writing on the wall, and were like, clearly the client wants to go in another direction,” said Hallett. This is because part of this includes doing what’s in the client’s best interests: a lawyer leaving a case late or being public about why they are leaving could cripple the client’s case, so part of the process of withdrawing includes getting the withdrawal approved by a judge.

In her own experience, attorney Barlow has two rules: she will quit a case if she’s not getting paid, or a client is not respectful, such as if they make inappropriate remarks or fight with her. One of her clients threatened her, and she withdrew from the case shortly thereafter. “I will fight for you tooth and nail, but I will not fight with you,” she said. In another instance, a client said, “Oh, you too fine to be my lawyer”; in these cases, she usually addresses it immediately and makes it clear she will withdraw if “(the client is) not able to control (themselves).”

But she noted that this kind of freedom to withdraw is afforded by the fact that she runs her own firm. Her other colleagues are often at the mercy of their firms and in moments of harassment, for example, are left to hope that their boss doesn’t “choose money over them,” said Barlow.

And “unfortunately, (this kind of environment is) common,” said Barlow. The disrespect and inappropriate behavior also doesn’t just stop at the clients — it extends to other lawyers and judges, and includes racist or homophobic jokes and remarks. “It’s all uncomfortable,” she said, “but at least (in) some cases you can get out of it.”

“If it’s your judge, it’s horrible,” Barlow said, referring to inappropriate comments or harassment. “If it’s your opposing counsel, that’s a tad bit easier because perhaps you can get the judge involved.” And after a while, you start to know what to expect from different people, in her experience: “You know that Judge Y says inappropriate things, you know Judge A tells the racist jokes.”

The crucial part for Barlow is understanding that this kind of behavior, particularly from judges, doesn’t just affect the person who hears it. “These judges are clasping all of our futures,” she said; if a judge makes sexually harassing remarks and they later hear a sexual harassment cases, it is likely that justice will not be served, she said.

She referenced the case of Chicago attorney David Pasulka, who sexually assaulted lawyers and clients, telling one client he would tell the judge to give her custody of her children if she had sex with him.

“It’s horrible for people experience it,” said Barlow, “but it did make things come to the forefront.”