When You and Your Client are Not Compatible
As a business owner, you always put your best foot forward when meeting a new client. Undoubtedly, you want clients to trust you and to feel confident that they are making the right choice by hiring you to represent their rights. But don’t forget that you are also hiring that client. While you’re under no obligation to exchange friendship bracelets with a new client, you want to have a positive working relationship. Therefore, mutual trust and respect is crucial to that relationship. Perhaps you had a great initial consultation, but things have turned sour. Or maybe there were some warning signs from the start, but you thought you could represent the client despite them. No matter the cause, it may be time to fire your client.
What types of behavior give rise to firing a client? Well, you may have enumerated those situations in your retainer agreement, such as a client engaging in behavior that is directly contradictory to the express purpose of your representation, skipping out on your bill or completely disappearing for long stretches of time during which you need their cooperation. But there are other not-so clear-cut reasons that may make you consider firing a client. For example, a client who is rude to your staff, who refuses to take your advice or who calls you so frequently that it could be considered harassment. A client may cause you extreme stress or anxiety as a result of some of these bad behaviors. The anxiety that this client causes you may outweigh the income that your representation generates. While this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of actions that could give rise to firing a client, if your gut (or head) is telling you that something is just not right, consider whether it is time to let that client go.
“Why would I ever fire a client?” you might ask. “It’s hard out there, and I need the income!” While that may be true, if you are spending a lot of time constantly firefighting a problem client, then you are wasting time that could be spent generating new business or providing good clients efficient, quality representation. Additionally, running a law practice is a marathon, not a sprint. If the hassles of a particular client are overwhelming, then it is not worth the mental anguish. You have to take care of yourself, too, and a client who makes you miserable should not be someone that you keep on your client list.
So, just how do you do it? First, determine who you’re going to fire. You may implement a practice to annually purge your problem clients. This would involve performing a comprehensive review of your current client list, determining which clients aren’t “pulling their weight,” so to speak, and then terminating the relationships. By annually terminating some client relationships, you free yourself up for more business from existing clients or to generate new business. You may also avoid any really unpleasant situations arising by regularly reviewing and firing the bottom, say 10%, of your client list. Or, you may choose to fire problem clients as they arise. If you wait until clients truly become problems to terminate them, will likely endure unpleasantness. You may ultimately, however, end up firing fewer clients overall.
When terminating a client relationship, do so in the most professional manner possible. In most cases, this is a conversation to have in person, but it is also a very good idea to provide a termination letter explaining the conclusion of your representation. Be polite, even if the client is not. Promptly provide the client with their file and any of their documents or materials that you have in your possession so they may seek other representation.
Don’t forget to follow the rules of professional conduct when firing a client. The termination of your relationship with a client may not have a material adverse effect on the client’s interests. Do you need leave of court? Is your client owed a refund of money paid but not earned? Check your local rules to ensure that firing a client won’t put you in hot water.
We can’t get along with everyone, and that’s okay. Recognizing when a client has become a problem and then effectively terminating that relationship will ultimately save you a lot of headache and put you in a better position to grow your business.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success. Anyone who has ever met Jared will tell you h