Unlike a "Dear John" letter, though, these missives seldom come out of the blue or take the recipient completely by surprise, although they can make those who receive them feel just about as blue.
Being fired by a client is not pleasant, especially in those instances when the parting takes place face-to-face. You will usually know exactly why the client has decided to go elsewhere and, more often than not, you will not be the one in the wrong. Nevertheless, you need to take the time and make the effort to do whatever is necessary to give the client some degree of
satisfaction as he or she walks out the door. There is an old adage that a satisfied customer will tell three other people about your services, and a dissatisfied one will tell everyone he or she meets—all day long! If you are able to satisfactorily resolve the underlying dispute, even if you do not continue with the representation, the client will be much less likely to make unfavorable remarks about you and your firm.
Listed below are some of the things you can do to attempt to smooth the waters and protect yourself, if necessary, from a subsequent ethics complaint or malpractice claim.
Often, a client will withdraw a case because he or she doesn't feel that a lawyer is understanding the issues. This is usually the case in situations in which you are giving your best advice in proposing a course of action that seems more than obvious to you, yet the client—unaccountably—persists in rejecting it. It's unfortunate if it has to come to the point of the client walking away, but this is sometimes a wake-up call that you've missed something critical. As lawyers, we are most closely attuned to the facts and the legal arguments that will determine the outcome of the client's case. This sometimes causes us to disregard—or even overlook completely—a case's emotional quotient.
Start over from the beginning, put all your preconceived ideas about the client and the case aside, and review everything you know about the case, with the emphasis on what various outcomes would mean to the client emotionally as well as financially. This will point the way for your next steps.
APOLOGIZE, IF APPROPRIATE.
If possible, meet with the client to discuss why he or she feels that he or she simply cannot do as you've suggested. Don't use this session as an opportunity to attempt to argue with the client, or try to counsel him or her to stay, or persuade him or her to your position. Instead, use it as an opportunity to part with the client on the best possible terms. While you should probably not apologize for anything related to legal strategy, apologizing to the client for any part you may have played in creating tension or stress in the legal relationship is often helpful. If other factors are involved—unreturned phone calls or other actions or inactions that the client could perceive as broken promises—apologize for those too. The point is to be as fair and objective as possible about the attorney-client relationship. Often, the fact that the lawyer is willing to accept part of the blame for the failure of the working relationship will be enough to send the client away with less of a bitter taste in his or her mouth.
SEND THE FILE PROMPTLY.
Jay Foonberg, in his seminal book How to Start & Build a Law Practice, which contains an excellent chapter on handling damage control if you are fired, recommends that if the client has a new lawyer, call that lawyer immediately. Foonberg counsels to help the new lawyer in any way that you can and then follow up with a letter, along with the file's contents, confirming your offer to help. As he points out, you may need the new lawyer's help to collect unpaid legal fees or claim your share of a future award. In addition, providing your assistance may help to defuse an ethics complaint or malpractice claim, or at least predispose the new lawyer to refuse to participate.
It's a good idea to survey all of your clients at the conclusion of each case. Strong practices are built on word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied clients, and the best route to satisfied clients is soliciting feedback, taking it seriously, and working hard to implement it. Unless it's totally inappropriate under the circumstances, follow up, even with clients who fired you. Determine what you can about how your clients perceive you and working with your law firm, and what you can do to ensure that the relationship you'll have with the next client is only positive.