When It's Time to Dump Your Client
by Jill Schachner Chanen
Carolyn Steven knew it was time to dump her client when she asked Stevens to preserve soiled diapers for evidence in her child visitation case.
The mother wanted to terminate the father's visitation rights because he had poor parenting skills. She said the father had begun using diapers that were too small for the child, and that was all the proof she needed for his incompetence.
Stevens thought otherwise. "I suggested that she simply tell the father to buy bigger diapers," recalls the solo family law practitioner in Missoula, Mont. "She flipped on me, accused me of siding with the child's father and then threatened to sue and report me to the disciplinary agency."
It was time, Stevens wisely decided, to terminate her representation. "If they can turn on me that quickly, I am always concerned they will do it again. Especially if the judge gives us an adverse ruling," she says.
Just about every solo has had them: Clients who won't take direction, who won't respond, who won't pay, who abuse the staff and the lawyer. Their behavior can be so aggravating that many lawyers begin to wonder whether the client is worth the fee. But instead of getting rid of them, small-firm practitioners tend to put up with them.
Jay Foonberg, a Beverly Hills, Calif., lawyer who wrote "How to Start and Build a Law Practice," says such practitioners often put up with bad client behavior because they do not want to admit failure. He adds that some lawyers are so hungry for a fee that they are willing to endure intolerable behavior. Some also fear that terminating a bad client relationship will result in a malpractice claim or a disciplinary action.
But hunger and fear should not paralyze solo and small-firm practitioners, Foonberg says. Bad clients can damage a lawyer's practice, staff, finances and personal life.
Like Stevens, Foonberg advocates terminating deteriorating client relationships before they become professionally and personally destructive. "You can lose about 90 percent of your aggravation by losing five percent of your fees," he says.
How a lawyer terminates a client relationship is important, Foonberg cautions. Soured attorney-client relationships are a leading cause of meritless malpractice suits and disciplinary complaints.
"Firing a client is always awkward. It's like firing anyone else or breaking up with someone," says Mary L.C. Daniel, a solo practitioner in Winchester, Va.
Daniel says she writes the client a short letter that clearly states she is ending representation. In certain cases she explains why. One time, she told a client she could no longer represent him because she knew he had perjured himself in a deposition. Other times she will offer a generic explanation, especially if feelings are already inflamed.
Foonberg takes responsibility for the relationship, telling undesirable clients he isn't the right lawyer for them.
By keeping relations with the ex-client friendly, there is less of a chance of a possible suit or disciplinary claim, says solo Bruce Dorner of Londonderry, N.H., chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section's Solo and Small Firm Division.
"I'm known as a great negotiator," he says. "I can settle most cases. Occasionally I have clients who start talking nice, then get into an obnoxious litigation mode. They want to fight for the sake of the fight . . . I tell them honestly that I'm not the best guy for that approach and suggest they might be better served by another attorney whom I'm pleased to recommend."
Cooperation also may help reduce antagonistic feelings or suspicion in the client's mind, Foonberg adds.
Dorner suggests getting a receipt from clients when they have taken possession of their files and other personal items. And, he says, send a polite letter confirming that.
In some cases, lawyers may even want to consider refunding client fees, especially when little time has been invested, Dorner suggests.
Doing so can be a lawyer's sweetest reward. Says Foonberg: "I say to myself, 'this is the client from hell. I don't need the money.'" He happily puts a check in the mail. And breathes a sigh of relief.