How To Fire a Difficult Client
Many times when things end badly they are out of our control. Personality conflicts, lack of funds, changing goals and objectives have all contributed to relationship discord between attorneys and clients. When there is no other potential resolution, it is best to part company.
That’s when it is time to fire the client.
Many times when you make the choice to discontinue your representation of a client, your emotions will be running high. Your personal feelings, related to what this person did (or didn’t do) have the potential to overwhelm your sense of good judgment.
Since an emotional reaction, in the heat of the moment, is a recipe for bad will (at minimum) or a complaint to the state bar’s disciplinary committee, it is best to have a process in place for handling these types of situations.
Below are the five steps to terminating a relationship with a client. These five steps should be followed in every instance where you need to end the client relationship – regardless of the reason.
First: Outline (in a letter) the reasons why the relationship must end. Try to lay out the facts in as sterile a way as possible. Emotion should not be included in this outline.
Second: Have someone double check your fact-based representation of the situation. Make sure they agree that you have, to the best of your ability, removed emotion from the situation. (Revise the letter as is necessary.)
Third: Thank the client, at the conclusion of the letter, for the opportunity to represent him. (Even if the client is the biggest pain-in-the-ass, you were still presented with an opportunity. Finding a way to express gratitude in a difficult situation is a sign of emotional maturity. This also goes a long way toward mitigating any future action the client may take against you – especially if he is emotional about you firing him.)
Fourth: Offer to make his transition to another lawyer as easy as possible. (You don’t need to find him another lawyer. You just need to agree to cooperate in turning over all documentation related to his case.)
Fifth: When possible, have a conversation with the client and express everything you have written in your letter directly to him. Be truthful and unemotional. Then sit back and allow him the opportunity to respond.
After he responds, do not react emotionally. Simply state that you understand his feelings (you don’t agree, but you understand).
This is difficult so I recommend you practice by giving your talk to someone else a few times. Having this conversation with a member of your staff “desensitizes” you to an extent. It makes saying these things a little easier and it helps to dull the emotion that accompanies the words.
After the conversation, send the letter via email and via postal mail. Make sure you include signature-required tracking on the letter sent though the postal service.
You may be wondering why I recommend sending the letter, having a conversation and providing an email. These are for three separate reasons:
The conversation is to allow the client the opportunity to vent. Even if you are completely justified in letting him go, you need to give him the opportunity to share his feeling with you. Let him blow off some steam. If you keep your emotions in check and you acknowledge that you understand everything he has said (not agree with everything but just understand) you will avoid lots of heartache with a bar disciplinary committee in the future. As someone who has served on one of these committees, I can say without hesitation, that 90% of the issues between an attorney and a client could have been resolved if the two parties took a moment to understand each other’s position.
The email is to provide proof that you attempted to contact him on a specific date. It is not proof that he read the email, but it is proof that you attempted to notify him in writing.
The postal service letter is also proof of notification and it demonstrates the lengths you went to in order to notify the client. If the client signs for delivery you will also have proof he received your notice.
Firing a client is never a easy. It rarely goes smoothly. The process as outlined above will hopefully help you get through a difficult situation with the least amount of adversity.
Here are three other articles you should read:
Sometimes you need to have these difficult discussions. How do you know when you need to fire a client? This article will provide you with some guidelines.
You can lose a client quickly if you don’t respond to him. This is the number one reason attorneys get fired and it’s also the top reason for disciplinary action. Follow this guide to stay on the right side of client interactions.
Sometimes we need to push the “reset button” on our staff or even client relationships. Maybe we were in a different frame of mind when these relationships started. Maybe it is just time to upgrade. This article will help you think through some of those decisions.
It’s The Law, It’s Not Your Life
Many lawyers dream of being something else. That is to say they dream of giving up the practice of law and becoming, well, it runs the gamut…
Many people go to law school because they graduate from college and they don’t know what else to do with their lives. Then they graduate from law school and they still don’t have an answer to that question so they take a job at a law firm. That job turns into a career and they wake up at age 40 disillusioned, depressed and disoriented.
Many of these people find me.
One of these lawyers wound up at lunch with me last week. I’ve known him for a while. He’s a friendly guy. Intelligent. And charming.
As a lawyer he is mediocre on his best day.
He came to me looking for some advice.
As a semi-crappy lawyer he often makes mistakes that other attorneys need to step in to correct. These mistakes are preventable and they come from lack of focus driven by lack of intellectual curiosity. Think about it: If you really hate reading about transnational torts, how good are you going to be about keeping up on the latest case law related to that subject?
Now this lawyer is in front of me and he wants some guidance on what to do with his life. His major dilemma: He has two kids, an expensive wife, a mortgage, car payments and all the emotional baggage that goes along with dedicating 20 years to a career that has placed him in this predicament.
But that’s not this guy’s real problem.
He let what he does define who he is.
Instead of being Joe Smith, great guy, dad, friend, husband and confidant – he is Joe Smith, aka Shleprock the lawyer.
Why change now?
In most cases, a guy like Shleprock would never leave his low six figure law job. He’d keep muddling through his life and in 30 more years he’d retire. Bald. Fat. Divorced. And on a host of medications to help him cope with the emotional damage he has done to himself.
But this guy has an “out.”
A friend offered to loan him the money to start his own business as a photographer.
It seems our boy Shlep has a great eye and is fantastic at getting people to relax in front of a camera. His friends and relatives ask him to take photos at their events and gatherings and everyone marvels at the images he captures.
The kicker: He loves taking photos.
During the course of our lunch, this soon-to-be former lawyer and I map out a strategy for telling his friends, family and his boss about this new chapter in his life. We also sketch out the first few steps in a marketing plan for his business.
Immediately Shelprock turns into Joe Smith, passionate, charming business leader bursting with enthusiasm.
He leaves lunch smiling with a bright future ahead of him.
How does this impact you? What can you take away from this story? One simple lesson:
Do not define who you are by what you do.
You are not “Joe the Lawyer.” You are “Joe the Great Guy.”
Today you are playing the role of a lawyer. If you are good at it, and have a passion for it, keep playing that role.
If you are “miscast,” it’s easy to find something else to do. Something that brings out the best in who you really are.
There is nothing worse than building a success you can’t stand.
Law firm marketing is easier when you are selling a product you love.
Where Have All The Good Times Gone?
The 1982 album Diver Down by Van Halen remains one of my favorites. One of the timeless classics contained on that pressed vinyl gem is the song “Where Have All the Good Times Gone.” While David Lee Roth’s sublime vocal styling makes the record what it is, the lyrics tell the story of someone reminiscing about easier times.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Today, in every corner law office, you can find someone reminiscing about how things used to be easier/better/more ethical/less cut throat…etc.
As much as I’d like to make this article about law firm marketing changing and people lamenting the change rather than getting on board, I cannot.
Because the disease of looking back and longing for an easier time is not limited to law firm marketing.
It has infected every area of life and every kind of practice.
I work with affluent lawyers and lawyers struggling to make this month’s rent payment. They have different problems but they both suffer just as much.
I mentor my licensees (people who are authorized to use my systems) and help them develop businesses consulting with attorneys. Some are more successful than others. But they all have some kind of large load they are bearing on their back.
My friends, people who have graduated with Ivy League Degrees and have high profile six and seven figure jobs, also have some personal suffering they carry with them on a day-to-day basis.
Is there a solution? Is there a way to stop the depression that rolls into our lives like a fog and never seems to lift?
For you – I don’t know. I’m not inside your head. I can write as if I am, but that’s just because your motivation is obvious. But writing for you and thinking for you are two different things (unfortunate for both of us, I know).
See, here’s the thing: When we focus on the negative things in our life, they become all-consuming. The more we long for yesterday, the less we appreciate today.
So here is the best guidance I can offer on this subject:
Enjoy what you’ve got. Right here. Right now. Today.
If you’ve only got a small television with basic cable, enjoy the Seinfeld reruns.
If you’ve only got Ramen Noodles for dinner, add some chicken broth and savor the flavor.
And if you’ve got anything more, take a moment and think about how the life you are living is probably someone else’s dream.
The take away line from: “Where Have All The Good Times Gone” is:
“Will this depression last for long?”
Based upon my experience, the answer to that question is entirely up to you.
Inside The Mind Of The Rainmaker Lawyer
If you are wondering how to get clients as a lawyer you need to take a trip inside the mind of the Rainmaker.
A Rainmaker Lawyer knows there are few problems that cannot be remedied by more revenue.
A Rainmaker Lawyer focuses on starting new relationships and deepening existing ones.
The Rainmaker Lawyer is immune from criticism. His ego makes him bulletproof.
The Rainmaker Lawyer knows his ethics must be beyond reproach because his peers (with lesser business development skills) will, out of jealousy, critique him for every little misstep.
The Rainmaker Lawyer respects and admires the skills of his legal team. He knows he is nothing without their support.
A Rainmaker Lawyer works hard behind the scenes to learn what his clients want but more important, he learns what his clients need. Then he works hard at helping the client want what they need.
Time is not a friend to the Rainmaker Lawyer. He knows that speed makes all the difference when working with clients. He thinks fast, he talks fast but he takes action even faster.
When the going gets tough, the Rainmaker Lawyer always comes through. His instinct for making a deal and his relationship development skills magically seem to come together at the perfect time for the client and the Rainmaker’s firm.
Everyone wants to be the successful trial lawyer who wins the big case. Everyone wants to be M&A expert who closed the big deal. Nobody goes to school with the ambition of opening doors and closing deals but the lawyer with that skill is indispensable.
So if you are wondering how to get clients as a lawyer, you need to start inside the mind of the man who puts food on the table for all the others.
Lawyers: Where Is Your Passion?
Yesterday I met with a lawyer who was absolutely miserable. He was well off but he was in the process of getting divorced from his fourth wife. He was obese, stressed out, and generally irascible.
His staff was constantly on pins and needles because of his volatility.
He called me because he wanted the great life he thought he deserved. Apparently, money could not buy it for him.
As I sat across from him, I leaned back in my chair and asked him the one question that would define his big problem. I said:
“Do you still look forward to coming into work every day?”
His eyes filled up and his face turned red. He couldn’t speak but I had my answer.
If you became a lawyer solely to make money you are going to be disappointed.
I don’t care if you’ve been practicing one year, five years or twenty five years, focusing on money is a path to a miserable life.
When you focus solely on making money, you neglect the most powerful motivating factors for selecting the law as a profession…your passion.
If you are not passionate about what you do or your clients or helping people, you may make great money but your life will be disappointing.
Take a few minutes today and think back to why you became a lawyer.
If that fire is not still burning as hot in you today as it was back then, you may want to take a good hard look at your career options.
Sometimes the noble choice is to move on.
Here are three more articles you should read to rekindle your passion:
Sometimes you need to be forced to take action. This is the story of a lawyer who was forced to go out on his own and it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Your attitude determines how far you go in life. I love being from New York. Growing up in this great place helped make me who I am. You can be a New Yorker too when you need to get things done. Here’s how.
Keeping the practice of law in context is important. It is a job. Or maybe it is a career. But it is not your life. You work to live you don’t live to work. Here’s why.