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Rule 1.16 Declining or Terminating Representation

(a) Except as stated in paragraph (c), a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if:

(1) the representation will result in violation of law or the Rules of Professional Conduct;

(2) the lawyer's physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer's ability to represent the client; or

(3) the lawyer is discharged.

(b) Except as stated in paragraph (c), a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client if:

(1) withdrawal can be accomplished without material adverse effect on the interests of the client; or

(2) the client knowingly and freely assents to the termination of the representation; or

(3) the client persists in a course of action involving the lawyer's services that the lawyer reasonably believes is criminal or fraudulent; or

(4) the client insists upon taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant, imprudent, or contrary to the advice and judgment of the lawyer, or with which the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement; or

(5) the client has used the lawyer's services to perpetrate a crime or fraud; or

(6) the client fails substantially to fulfill an obligation to the lawyer regarding the lawyer's services and has been given reasonable warning that the lawyer will withdraw unless the obligation is fulfilled; or

(7) the representation will result in an unreasonable financial burden on the lawyer or has been rendered unreasonably difficult by the client; or

(8) the client insists upon presenting a claim or defense that is not warranted under existing law and cannot be supported by good faith argument for an extension, modification, or reversal of existing law; or

(9) other good cause for withdrawal exists.

(c) A lawyer must comply with applicable law requiring notice to or permission of a tribunal when terminating a representation. When ordered to do so by a tribunal, a lawyer shall continue representation notwithstanding good cause for terminating the representation.

(d) Upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client's interests, such as giving reasonable notice to the client, allowing time for employment of other counsel, surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled and refunding any advance payment of fee or expense that has not been earned or incurred. The lawyer may retain papers relating to the client to the extent permitted by other law.


[1] A lawyer should not accept representation in a matter unless it can be performed competently, promptly, without improper conflict of interest and to completion. Ordinarily, a representation in a matter is completed when the agreed-upon assistance has been concluded. See Rules 1.2(c) and 6.5.See also Rule 1.3, Comment [4].

Mandatory Withdrawal

[2] A lawyer ordinarily must decline or withdraw from representation if the client demands that the lawyer engage in conduct that is illegal or violates the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law. The lawyer is not obliged to decline or withdraw simply because the client suggests such a course of conduct; a client may make such a suggestion in the hope that a lawyer will not be constrained by a professional obligation.

[3] When a lawyer has been appointed to represent a client, withdrawal ordinarily requires approval of the appointing authority. Similarly, court approval or notice to the court is often required by applicable law before a lawyer withdraws from pending litigation. Difficulty may be encountered if withdrawal is based on the client's demand that the lawyer engage in unprofessional conduct. The court may request an explanation for the withdrawal, while the lawyer may be bound to keep confidential the facts that would constitute such an explanation. The lawyer's statement that professional considerations require termination of the representation ordinarily should be accepted as sufficient. Lawyers should be mindful of their obligations to both clients and the court under Rules 1.6 and 3.3.


[4] A client has a right to discharge a lawyer at any time, with or without cause, subject to liability for payment for the lawyer's services. Where future dispute about the withdrawal may be anticipated, it may be advisable to prepare a written statement reciting the circumstances.

[5] Whether a client can discharge appointed counsel may depend on applicable law. A client seeking to do so should be given a full explanation of the consequences. These consequences may include a decision by the appointing authority that appointment of successor counsel is unjustified, thus requiring self-representation by the client.

[6] If the client has severely diminished capacity, the client may lack the legal capacity to discharge the lawyer, and in any event the discharge may be seriously adverse to the client's interests. The lawyer should make special effort to help the client consider the consequences and may take reasonably necessary protective action as provided in Rule 1.14.

Optional Withdrawal

[7] A lawyer may withdraw from representation in some circumstances. The lawyer has the option to withdraw if it can be accomplished without material adverse effect on the client's interests. Forfeiture by the client of a substantial financial investment in the representation may have such effect on the client's interests. Withdrawal is also justified if the client persists in a course of action that the lawyer reasonably believes is criminal or fraudulent, for a lawyer is not required to be associated with such conduct even if the lawyer does not further it. Withdrawal is also permitted if the lawyer's services were misused in the past even if that would materially prejudice the client. The lawyer may also withdraw where the client insists on taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant or imprudent or with which the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement.

[8] A lawyer may withdraw if the client refuses to abide by the terms of an agreement relating to the representation, such as an agreement concerning fees or court costs or an agreement limiting the objectives of the representation.

Assisting the Client upon Withdrawal

[9] Even if the lawyer has been unfairly discharged by the client, a lawyer must take all reasonable steps to mitigate the consequences to the client.

[10] The lawyer may never retain papers to secure a fee. Generally, anything in the file that would be helpful to successor counsel should be turned over. This includes papers and other things delivered to the discharged lawyer by the client such as original instruments, correspondence, and canceled checks. Copies of all correspondence received and generated by the withdrawing or discharged lawyer should be released as well as legal instruments, pleadings, and briefs submitted by either side or prepared and ready for submission. The lawyer's personal notes and incomplete work product need not be released.

[11] A lawyer who represented an indigent on an appeal which has been concluded and who obtained a trial transcript furnished by the state for use in preparing the appeal, must turn over the transcript to the former client upon request, the transcript being property to which the former client is entitled.

History Note: Statutory Authority G.S. 84-23

Adopted by the Supreme Court: July 24, 1997

Amendments Approved by the Supreme Court: March 1, 2003

Ethics Opinion Notes

CPR 3.

CPR 24. Withdrawing partners and remaining partners should send clients a common announcement of the firm's dissolution so that the client may elect whom he wishes to handle his legal business.

CPR 61. It is improper for a senior member of a law firm who is employed to represent a client to refer a case to a junior partner or associate without the client's consent.

CPR 269. An attorney whose motion to withdraw from representation of a corporation is denied must continue to represent the corporation.

CPR 315.

CPR 322 (Revised).

RPC 8. Opinion rules that a lawyer employed by an insurer to represent an uninsured motorist must not withdraw after settlement until he obtains permission of the tribunal and takes steps to minimize prejudice to his client [Originally published as RPC 8 (Revised)]

RPC 48. Opinion outlines professional responsibilities of lawyers involved in a law firm dissolution.

RPC 58. Opinion rules that another member of a lawyer's firm may substitute for the lawyer in defending a criminal case if there is no prejudice to the client and the client and the court consent.

RPC 79. Opinion rules that a lawyer who advances the cost of obtaining medical records before deciding whether to accept a case may not condition the release of the records to the client upon reimbursement of the cost.

RPC 106. Opinion discusses circumstances under which a refund of a prepaid fee is required.

RPC 153. Opinion rules that in cases of multiple representation a lawyer who has been discharged by one client must deliver to that client as part of that client's file information entrusted to the lawyer by the other client.

RPC 157. Opinion rules that a lawyer may seek the appointment of a guardian for a client the lawyer believes to be incompetent over the client's objection.

RPC 158. Opinion rules that a sum of money paid to a lawyer in advance to secure payment of a fee which is yet to be earned and to which the lawyer is not entitled must be deposited in the lawyer's trust account.

RPC 169. Opinion rules that a lawyer is not required to provide a former client with copies of title notes and may charge a former client for copies of documents from the client's file under certain circumstances.

RPC 178. Opinion examines a lawyer's obligation to deliver the file to the client upon the termination of the representation when the lawyer represents multiple clients in a single matter.

RPC 223. Opinion rules that when a lawyer's reasonable attempts to locate a client are unsuccessful, the client's disappearance constitutes a constructive discharge of the lawyer requiring the lawyer's withdrawal from the representation.

RPC 227. Opinion rules that a former residential real estate client is not entitled to the lawyer's title notes or abstracts regardless of whether such information is stored in the client's file. However, a lawyer formerly associated with a firm may be entitled to examine the title notes made by the lawyer to provide further representation to the same client.

RPC 234. Opinion rules that an inactive client file may be stored in an electronic format provided original documents with legal significance are preserved and the documents in the electronic file can be reproduced on paper.

RPC 245. Opinion rules that a lawyer in possession of the legal file relating to the prior representation of co-parties in an action must provide the co-party the lawyer does not represent with access to the file and a reasonable opportunity to copy the contents of the file.

98 Formal Ethics Opinion 9. Opinion rules that a lawyer may charge a client the actual cost of retrieving a closed client file from storage, subject to certain conditions, provided the lawyer does not withhold the file to extract payment.

2002 Formal Ethics Opinion 5. Opinion rules that whether electronic mail should be retained as a part of a client's file is a legal decision to be made by the lawyer.

2005 Formal Ethics Opinion 13. Opinion rules that a minimum fee that will be billed against at an hourly rate and is collected at the beginning of representation belongs to the client and must be deposited into the trust account until earned and, upon termination of representation, the unearned portion of the fee must be returned to the client.

2006 Formal Ethics Opinion 18. Opinion rules that, when representation is terminated by a client, a lawyer who advances the cost of a deposition and transcript may not condition release of the transcript to the client upon reimbursement of the cost.

2007 Formal Ethics Opinion 8. Opinion rules that a lawyer may not charge a client for filing and presenting a motion to withdraw unless withdrawal advances the client's objectives for the representation or the charge is approved by the court when ruling on a petition for legal fees from a court-appointed lawyer.

2009 Formal Ethics Opinion 8. Opinion provides guidelines for a lawyer for a party to a partition proceeding and rules that the lawyer may subsequently serve as a commissioner for the sale but not as one of the commissioners for the partitioning of the property.

2010 Formal Ethics Opinion 1. Opinion rules that a lawyer retained by an insurance carrier to represent an insured whose whereabouts are unknown and with whom the lawyer has no contact may not appear as the lawyer for the insured absent authorization by law or court order.

2013 Formal Ethics Opinion 8. Opinion analyzes the responsibilities of the partners and supervisory lawyers in a firm when another firm lawyer has a mental impairment.

2013 Formal Ethics Opinion 9. Opinion provides guidance to lawyers who work for a public interest law organization that provides legal and non-legal services to its clientele and that has an executive director who is not a lawyer.

2013 Formal Ethics Opinion 15. Opinion rules that records relative to a client’s matter that would be helpful to subsequent legal counsel must be provided to the client upon the termination of the representation, and may be provided in an electronic format if readily accessible to the client without undue expense.

2015 Formal Ethics Opinion 5. Opinion provides that in post-conviction or appellate proceedings, a discharged lawyer may discuss a former client’s case and turn over the former client’s file to successor counsel if the former client consents or the disclosure is impliedly authorized.

2021 Formal Ethics Opinion 6. Opinion addresses a law firm’s ethical responsibilities as to a departing lawyer’s email account.

2023 Formal Ethics Opinion 1. Opinion clarifies a lawyer’s professional responsibility when closing and/or selling a law practice and when handling aged client files.

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