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Well Said!

Purge Toxic Clients from Your Practice, Part 2

By Mike O'Horo

In Part 1 of “Purge Toxic Clients,” we walked through how to identify a bad client. Today, having identified them, let’s look at how to actually end the relationship.

How to Fire a Client

When ending a client relationship, you have three goals:

  1. Politely explain the situation.
  2. Be professional — you never know where people will be five, 10 or 15 years in the future.
  3. Set clear expectations of what to expect from you next.

Prepare. Collect all related engagement documents, work product and other resources. Have an up-to-date status report on any projects, and be sure you’re following your jurisdiction’s rules on ending the relationship. Have referral recommendations ready. Be prepared because you want to do everything you can to help the client transition, and you want to do it all at once. Not only is this professional, it also ensures the client won’t have reason to contact you or demand anything from you after you break ties.

Do it. Start the conversation with the immediate issue that has driven your decision.

Be calm. You may feel resentment, but keep it out of this conversation. List your reasons, but be as concise as possible. If you’re inclined, expand on them if the client asks; otherwise, less is more. Wrap it up and move on.

Should you do this by email, by phone or in person? You’ll have to decide which is more appropriate for the client in question.

Some argue that face-to-face is best — or phone if geographically remote — because it’s a breakup, and you wouldn’t break up with a romantic interest by email. Others argue against that because the client will often be unprepared for the bad news, may feel ambushed and may react angrily, making the subsequent wrap-up more difficult than it has to be.

Some believe that email enables the client to digest the unwelcome information, give vent to any emotions privately, and discuss next steps with you more calmly afterward. Also, so much client communication is conducted by email now that many people don’t consider it improper for sensitive communication. Here’s a sample script:

Dear ____,

I’m writing to share some bad news with you.

Over the past few months, in the spirit of improving our working relationship, I’ve discussed with you some serious problems that I explained compromise our ability to do great work for you and to make the relationship mutually rewarding. Specifically, I refer to [problems discussed]. Despite your promises to address them and modify these [behaviors, actions, attitudes], they’ve persisted. It’s clear that we simply are not a good fit.

With regret, I must inform you that as of [date] we will no longer represent you.

By [date], we will complete [specific deliverables] and deliver all materials necessary for you to effect a smooth transition to your new counsel.

I’m available by phone to answer your questions and finalize details.

Listen. Once they receive your announcement, most clients will wish to discuss it. Whether or not the client’s explanations matter to you is irrelevant. Listening is a common courtesy. Even if the client didn’t extend that courtesy in your working relationship, be the better person.

Resolve the details. Define everyone’s respective obligations from this point, being sure all details conform to your bar’s rules of professional conduct. Wrap up any outstanding work and ensure the client is clear about any money owed.

Refer them. For obvious reasons, you won’t refer a problem client to someone you like, at least without being clear about why you’re making the client available. If there’s nobody you’d burden this way, you can provide a list of relevant practitioners whom you don’t know.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t think of anyone who would seem to be a better fit for you. However, I’ll send you a list of lawyers known to do this kind of work.”

To make room for better, more strategic and more lucrative clients, you have to be willing to let go of the ones that hold you back.

Illustration ©

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Mike O’Horo Mike O'Horo

Known as “The Coach” throughout his long career, Mike O’Horo was a giant among his peers in legal marketing and business development. He trained more than 7,000 lawyers, simplifying powerful sales processes by which they generated $1.5 billion in new business. A serial innovator, earlier he developed RainmakerVT, a virtual BD training tool, and the sales training program ResultsPath. He wrote his column, “Well Said!,” on sales and business development truths for lawyers. Mike passed away in February 2022.

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