GPSOLO January/February 2010
How to Fire a Client
We’re in the middle of a recession, the law factories are firing lawyers by the bucketful, and those with their own law practices are scrambling to hold on to their clients. So, what did I choose to write about now? How to get rid of clients.
No, I haven’t lost my mind. In fact, knowing when and how to fire a client is a skill that can benefit your law practice tremendously. Permit me to do a quick analysis before you stop reading this column.
Parade of Horribles
First, a troublesome client whom you should consider firing is one who:
- doesn’t pay the bill or pays it very slowly, forcing you to spend a lot of time on collections;
- complains about your work—a lot (a client can have a legitimate complaint, but then there are the ones who are always complaining about your work, your bill, and whatever else they can think of);
- doesn’t listen to your advice, making it extremely difficult for you to represent the client;
- disappears and doesn’t show up until a day before trial;
- has other “habits” that cause you to feel tremendous anxiety;
- has an aggravation factor that far outweighs what you are earning from the client.
I find that to understand the full effect of these clients it is helpful to visualize a pack of flesh-eating zombies stumbling toward your office, which often is not too far from the reality.
Keeping such a high-maintenance, low-return client is bad because:
- it takes up a chunk of your time that could be otherwise devoted to developing and servicing better-quality clients;
- it makes you miserable (yes, that’s important, believe it or not);
- the amount of time and emotional energy taken up by this client is way out of proportion to the amount of revenue brought in;
- you’re affected even when you’re not working on this client—trouble clients generally challenge your self-esteem, making it harder for you to do well with other clients.
Rationalizing that “there are no other clients so I have to keep the rotten ones, too,” doesn’t hold water. Dropping that dog of a client most likely will lead to additional work for existing clients and generate new work for new clients, even in a recession.
Why does this happen? If, instead of giving short shrift to existing clients because you are so tangled up with a trouble client, you fire the trouble client, then you will have more time to spend with existing clients in a calmer environment, permitting you to ask about their business and how everything is going, which can lead to new business. Also, you will have the extra time to find new clients by making phone calls, setting up business-generating meetings with other professionals and potential clients, and doing whatever else it takes to get more clients.
If a client gets on your nerves during good economic times, you have no qualms about withdrawing representation because you have plenty of other work. During times of economic duress, you are working so hard to keep all your clients that you may not realize one or more of them is dragging down your practice. Letting even one client go is unthinkable.
So you have the tendency during bad times to hold on to counter-productive clients. It’s hard to imagine that no client is better than a bad client, but it’s true, especially when you understand that not only will the major energy drain be removed but your odds will go up for getting another, better client to replace the bad client.
How to Fire a Client
First, review all your clients and determine which are in the bottom 10 percent of the list in terms of “good” and “bad” qualities. Good qualities include being highly productive, easy to work with, and generally people who are simpatico—you know it when you see it. Bad qualities include those items listed at the beginning of this article.
Some lawyers actually make it an annual exercise to fire the bottom 10 percent of their clients. You don’t have to go that far, but from time to time look at the ones who are particularly troublesome and think hard about giving them the boot.
Remember not to commit malpractice when terminating the attorney-client relationship. This is especially true for litigators. You can’t just leave a client high and dry in the middle of a lawsuit. Be sure to observe all local rules in this regard.
Reducing the likelihood of a malpractice claim can be achieved by terminating the relationship in the best possible way. That means that you are polite to these clients no matter how much you feel that they don’t deserve such politeness, you make sure that the clients get a well-organized file for the next lawyer to represent them, and you inform the clients that you will make yourself available to the next lawyer if there are any questions. This last item is in some ways self-serving because new counsel could see something in the file that, owing to the lawyer’s lack of familiarity with the matter, appears badly done and perhaps even reaching the level of malpractice. An explanation from you is very useful here before things spiral out of control.
Termination is better accomplished in person in your office where there is some privacy and not in a public place such as a restaurant. Never terminate an attorney-client relationship by e-mail. (There’s nothing wrong with having an explanatory letter accompany the file so that you have something in writing evidencing your point of view of the process—the client countersigns this letter as an acknowledgement of receipt and as evidence of receipt of the client file if it is delivered directly to the client.)
Let these clients know that you feel it would be best for them if they found new legal representation because the relationship is not functioning at a level that would permit you to provide adequate representation. You’ll have to come up with your own words for each particular situation. Bottom line: Do your best to be sensitive to your client’s ego.
A solo law practice presents many challenges and requires you, and you alone, to make many tough judgment calls. The termination of an attorney-client relationship is a delicate process and will go against your instinct to hold tight to all of your legal business, but you will be surprised at the sense of being a master of your own fate that you will feel once you achieve this task. And gee, wasn’t being a master of your own fate the reason you went solo in the first place?
David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. In his spare time he blogs at staringatstrangers.typepad.com . You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.