How To Fire a Difficult Client

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Attorney Fires a ClientMany 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:

Law Firm Leadership Sometimes Means Firing Clients

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.

The Fastest Way to Lose a Client

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.

Clean Out Your Attitude and Maybe Your Clients

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.