How to fire a problem client in your law practice

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fire a problem clientToday I had to fire a problem client. It wasn’t fun. It pretty much sucked. I hate doing it – the potential backlash is scary. Will the client complain to the bar about me? Will they request a refund of all fees paid? Will they slam me and my firm on social media or on my online reviews?

This blog is all about how to get more clients, not getting rid of the ones you already have. So why write about firing a problem client? Sometimes firing a problem client is the best thing you can do for your law practice and your sanity.

According to David Leffler, who writes for the American Bar Association, there are five main reasons you should consider firing a problem client:

  • The client doesn’t pay their bill;
  • The client complains about your legal work more than average (there are always legitimate complaints, but if you are provided excellent client service like I preach on this blog, these complaints should be few and far between);
  • The client doesn’t listen to your advice, making it difficult for you to properly represent the client;
  • The client has “habits” that cause you to feel anxious or nervous about representing them;
  • The client exhibits what could be called an “aggravation factor” that far outweighs the (typically) small fee that you are earning from that client.

Keeping a high maintenance client is bad for your practice because it:

  • Saps the life out of you;
  • Makes you miserable;
  • Costs you time and money that you could be spending on either getting better clients or servicing the good clients you already have;
  • Causes you unnecessary stress and worry that you may make a mistake on this client’s file.

Why did I fire a client today?

So with that background in mind, today I fired a problem client. I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to help this individual in the worst way, but the actions they were taking made it just too difficult to do so. We are in the process of trying to schedule a mediation to resolve the case, but I told my client that they would have to replenish their trust account balance with my firm first. This is not uncommon in family law cases. My client sent me an email that included the following demands:

  • I will replenish your trust account, but “I would like to know exactly what’s going to happen … before I do.”
  • “Are you going to fight for me or just follow protocol?”

As I write this, I realize that these are not unreasonable demands from most clients. But in a situation like this, you really need to look at the whole picture. If this were a new client who was taking part in an initial consultation and wanted to know exactly how I would handle their case before they hired me, that is one thing. But this is an established relationship with a client that already knows exactly how I work. She has been informed of what needed to happen to settle her case. She has been advised of all the possible scenarios (filing a lawsuit, mediating the case, continued negotiation, etc.) She has been advised that duking things out in court is expensive and takes a long time in my jurisdiction – she can’t afford it.

She wants a top end Mercedes, but is only willing to pay for an entry level compact.

You must set proper expectations with your clients

Perhaps the bigger issue here is expectations. Even though I explain to all my clients how I work and how their case will proceed (I automate the process, so I know it happens with everyone – I’ll save what I do for a different post), something fell through the crack with this client. Something didn’t quite register with her. And all the hand-holding and explaining in the world wasn’t going to change that.

This client might be a dream to another firm. The problem may very well be that our personalities did not mesh. I don’t have a whole lot of tolerance for clients that won’t listen to or follow my advice. This client did neither of these things.

What do you do when you think you have a problem client?

If you think you might have a problem client, the best thing you can do is document, document, document. You need to keep meticulous notes. But when things get bad, you really need to consider letting this client go.

Brian Tannebaum, author of “Above the Law” writes:

Never hold on to a client that sucks the life blood out of you … and won’t stop. Difficult, demanding clients are one thing, but clients that have no concept of the way you ethically and professionally practice law need to go.

You need to scrub your client files at least annually to make sure you are only working with the clients that you most enjoy working with. Clients who are late on their bills, or who are difficult to deal with (or violate any of the other reasons listed above) should be fired.

What is the best way to fire a problem client?

You need to be very careful when firing your problem clients. In my situation, a lawsuit had not yet been filed, so I did not need the court’s permission to terminate the attorney-client relationship. However, if you are in the middle of a lawsuit, you need to check with your local rules to insure that you do not commit malpractice.

Here is some great advice from David Leffler on how to avoid a malpractice claim when firing a problem client:

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.

Make sure you treat the client with respect. If you can fire the client in person, it is preferable. If you must do so over email – be careful to remain professional and not engage in a back and forth with the client over your representation. The client may be angry and upset with you. Go above and beyond to be polite and courteous. Explain to the client that the relationship is not working and that they would be better served by hiring a different lawyer.

Lastly, make sure your written fee agreement calls for when you can withdraw. You may want to include a “client cooperation clause” in your contract. My contract includes a clause that reads like this:

Client Cooperation. Client understands that their cooperation, as the client, is very important. Client has been informed that they must keep the firm informed immediately of any change of address, phone number, employment and circumstances. Client understands that full disclosure of all facts is essential to enable the firm to properly represent them. Client will promptly fill out and return all papers sent to them, such as interrogatories and requests for information, and will provide all documentation required or requested by the firm, initial disclosures, financial affidavits or requests for documents, etc. If Client fails to do so, Client agrees that the firm shall have the right to withdraw from representing the Client.

Finally, if you do have questions about how or when to fire a problem client, I recommend that you contact your local bar association. Many states will have ethics or malpractice hotlines that you can call and ask anonymous questions. My malpractice carrier offers a similar service. (I’m licensed in North Carolina and Florida, hence these two options).  When in doubt, it is always better to ask a more experienced attorney to make sure you are doing things right.

As always, if you have questions or want to share a horror story about when you had to fire a problem client, please feel free to comment below.

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