chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

GPSolo eReport

GPSolo eReport Article Archives

What to Do When a Client Ghosts You

Charity A Anastasio


  • The intake process is the first step to decrease the likelihood of your client vanishing by ensuring you have the correct contact information and emergency processes in place.
  • Set expectations and procedures to stay connected with your clients.
  • If the client is not reachable, document your efforts to find the client, and begin the process of withdrawing per court procedure and other applicable rules as referenced in the ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.16: Declining or Terminating Representation.
  • Handling unpaid fees from the lawyer trust account by following state-specified escheatment or property abandonment rules.
What to Do When a Client Ghosts You
Cavan Images via Getty Images

Jump to:

Collect Detailed Contact Information

The push for ensuring a client doesn’t ghost you starts at the very beginning. At intake, get good contact information for your potential clients. Double-check phone numbers, addresses, and emails with them, if being collected by phone. If they are entering their own information on an online or written form, confirm the information in the first meeting as well.

In the consultation, discuss communication norms for the firm and expectations of availability and response time both for the client and lawyer. When you lay out the lawyer’s side of the relationship, the conversation may go something like, “I am regularly available weekdays from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and on off-hours for emergencies. I generally answer emails fastest, and I try my best to return all non-emergent calls within 48 hours unless I’m on vacation or ill. I have an answering service for off hours, but I’m a solo practitioner who guards her time with family and friends religiously. No one else will do it if I don’t. Do you think you can respect that boundary if we work together?” This means a concerted effort to determine and develop those communications norms is important. It also helps you weed out clients who don’t match your expectations.

For the client’s side, you may start with, “What is your preferred method of communication with me: phone, videoconference, or texting? When do you work? Is it convenient for us to speak during business hours?”

Emergencies and Disasters

Consider asking the potential client for an emergency contact here or when the engagement/fee agreement is signed, as well as a work phone number and a second email address. Some clients are not email users and live on their smartphones. For clients like this, a client portal that is a phone application will eliminate the need for an email barrier and will increase the likelihood your messages to them (sent through the phone application client portal) will not be missed. Request that they download the application and turn on notifications. (Then, only send them things they need to know.)

Ensure you get permission in the engagement agreement to speak to an emergency contact. You can put this in a section that discusses their right to confidentiality and ask them to waive other key confidences so that they understand the purpose behind that waiver. For example, you could have the agreement say, “When we are unable to reach you, we will reach out to your emergency contact. You waive confidentiality as it pertains to speaking to your emergency contact, but only in emergencies and only to the extent we need to get in touch with you through them. You have the right to change your emergency contact, revoke, or limit this permission in writing.”

Disasters are a common time when you can lose track of a client. Just as a law firm needs a disaster plan, so do families and individuals. So, ask them where they would go in an emergency. Have this in their file—this becomes more relevant as natural disasters from floods, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and pandemics happen at an increasing rate.

Managing the Client Relationship Proactively and Professionally

To have the best chance of tracking down your clients, keep all this information about them in an electronic client file. The goal is for whoever picks up the phone or reaches out to the client to have the best information available to them at any given time.

Another obligation of the client to enumerate in the fee agreement is to notify the law firm of any address changes. Your policy could be “notify us within a week,” or you could tie it to the deadline they have to inform the relevant government or court entities you are representing them before.

Staying Connected Is Essential

Stay in touch with your clients regularly, even when nothing has been happening on their case for years. A monthly or bimonthly call from your administrative assistant or paralegal just to say, “We are doing our regular check-in. The status of your case is still pending. We are seeing processing times of two years right now,” seems like wasted time to some. But it’s a prime time to also ask, “Have you had any major life changes, such as losing a job or moving?” Or “How are you faring during this tough time?” Or even, “Do you have any questions we haven’t addressed?” If the lawyer makes this call, it can take a long time. Clients always have questions. But if an assistant does it, the assistant can schedule a time for the client to meet with the lawyer.

Keep in mind that what clients want from us is more than just properly filed and argued briefs and motions. What they want is a guide through an arduous process. Part of the reason clients ghost lawyers is because they have complicated lives, or they run out of money and run from their inability to pay and the heaviness of the legal situation they are in. But the other reason is that we let them drift away. We tell them that nothing will happen for a long time, and then we leave them with their complicated emotions and confusion, and they seek solace elsewhere. Lawyers need to be there when the legal issues get more complicated, so don’t let them just drift away.

When the Ghosting Happens, Against All Odds

Even if you do all these things perfectly, some clients will still ghost you. When they disappear, have a procedure for how you address it. The procedure should be an escalating set of processes for how to address the absent client. For example, it could be:

  • Call, email, or text a client based on the client’s latest communication preferences.
  • If this contact information proves bad, choose an alternate method.
  • If the client doesn’t respond within 48 hours (in the case of non-emergencies) or 24 hours (in the case of emergencies), follow up with another phone call and an email.
  • If time permits, send the client a letter via the U.S. Postal Service.
  • If time does not permit or there is no response, contact the emergency contact. Leave a message if necessary. Say only that you need to speak to the client and that it is urgent.
  • Wait 24 to 48 hours (as the situation permits). If there is still no response, email, call, and text with a firm message that failure to respond could result in the firm’s withdrawal from representation because the client is not abiding by their obligation to be reasonably available to you.
  • If there is no response, use an online search tool to try and find alternate addresses. Send a letter to the last known address, certified receipt requested.
  • If the client is still not reachable, begin the process of withdrawing per court procedure and other applicable rules. (See ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.16: Declining or Terminating Representation.)

Document your search process thoroughly, and use it in your withdrawal process, if necessary. Be circumspect about details, as your duty of confidentiality still applies. But you must be able to sufficiently explain to a judge or other adjudicator why it is appropriate for you to withdraw. This becomes harder to justify the closer you are to a trial or hearing date because it will bias the client significantly. (This is just another reason to ensure you know where your client is even when those big events aren’t close at hand.)

If You Finally Find the Client

If you are able to track down MIA clients, it’s time for a very firm conversation about their obligations to be reasonably available to you. If they are not receptive to you, it may still warrant withdrawal. They’ve now shaken your trust in them, and you need to feel confident they will not vanish again before you proceed with their case. Above all, they need to understand that ghosting you is not acceptable, especially as you get closer to big events such as preparing for an interview or trial. They need to understand it cannot happen again.

If You Never Find the Client

Again, you could do everything right, and a client could still vanish. There are so many reasons people run from their problems. If you are still on the case or were not permitted to withdraw, appear and explain that you were unable to locate your client. Have your documentation about the efforts you went through to find them and be ready to present it, as well as the client’s case. Ask for a continuance or extension. If that is not granted, do your best to represent your client’s interests in his or her absence. This is obviously not ideal, but you do need to protect your license and reputation.

Paid and Unpaid Fees

It is easier to manage your feelings about clients who abandon their cases if they had paid you in full, though that is frequently not the case. You can continue to try to find the client through online searches and even hire a private detective if you want to collect unpaid legal fees. Or you can deem it a write-off and move on.

If they paid fees that are still in your lawyer trust account, pay yourself what fees are earned after notifying them of the work done to the last known address. If there are unearned fees and you’ve done everything you can to find them and return their money to them, follow state-specified escheatment or property abandonment rules; usually, this involves paying the amount to the state and telling them to whom it belongs and that you could not find this person.

Keep a record of everything that transpired. It may be worth it to retain this particular client file longer than the retention policy because the representation went south and you never had a chance to reconnect with the client. But don’t take their abandonment of the case personally. Chalk it up to their complicated life, and keep an eye out for those clues you could have picked up on that this client wasn’t the most reliable. Continue to hone your policies and communication systems with clients to keep them engaged in their case and with the firm so you reduce the likelihood as much as possible of it happening again. Onward and upward!