Volume 10, no. 4
’Til the Last Dog’s Hung
By jennifer j. rose
The trial’s over, judgment has been entered, and you think your job’s done. So foolish, so delusional were you to fancy those ideas. You were so wrong. It matters not whether you won or lost, the client thinks of you as lawyer-for-life. If the post mortems, the “what ifs” and “should’ves” weren’t enough, there remains the judgment to be enforced (or evaded), and all of those last little details and loose ends tied up. And this little question and that little other matter. The phrase ’til the last dog’s hung refers to the quaint practice on the American frontier of hunting down and hanging every last despicable desperado.
An obstetrician’s job is done when the baby’s been delivered. A teacher’s job is complete when the student graduates. A spouse’s job is over when the marriage dies. Even a long and boring opera ends when the fat lady sings. But like a mother, a lawyer’s job is never done.
Like the Energizer Bunny, some clients don’t know when to quit. And some lawyers who are very good at marketing their services find it very difficult to politely and professionally shed the client when the work’s completed.
Terminating the attorney-client relationship begins at its inception—in the retainer agreement. That agreement should spell out very specifically the scope and terms of representation, signaling all parameters of the specific task to both lawyer and client. “Sally Smith hires Lawyer Bob to represent her in the case of Smith v. Metropolitan Surety , Law No. CD-777.” Sally’s questions about her divorce, bankruptcy, drunk driving case, and her mother-in-law’s estate require new and separate retainer agreements.
When the objectives of a specific representation are met, signal its end to the client by filing a formal withdrawal, returning important documents to the client, and delivering a closing letter stating that the representation in the matter has been completed. Send a final statement for fees and make arrangements for payment. Formally close out the file.
The closing letter can even be an opportunity to market future services. If it appears that the client’s status has changed as a result of your representation, there’s nothing wrong in suggesting that he or she consider an estate plan. But when the client calls for those other matters, it’s time for a separate retainer agreement. Obviously, you can drop the marketing pitch for those clients we all wish would go elsewhere.
How well the attorney-client relationship ends means more than simply shedding the client. A relationship that drags on and on can be financially disastrous to your bottom line, emotional state, and career. It’s a lawyer’s responsibility to cut that apron string. A satisfied client is apt to refer others, and a disgruntled client is a ripe source of complaints. It’s far better to tactfully and firmly tell a client that the relationship is over than to allow an uncomfortable relationship to end in a less-than-graceful “Get out of my office and never darken its door again!” Sticking it out to the bitter end risks bad blood between you and your client. On the other hand, changing your name and moving to Paraguay is always an option.
jennifer j. rose is editor-in-chief of GPSolo magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.