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You know what feels good? Firing a client.
My firm was hired to help a client with multiple applications for registering their intellectual property. We tell every client there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to get them everything they want. This client got upset about the status of one of the applications, and then refused to pay the balance on a project. I explained that their feelings didn’t negate their obligations, and if they didn’t pay, we’d be constrained to withdraw as counsel from all their pending applications. They refused, so I withdrew as the attorney of record and the firm disengaged from all their projects.
This situation wasn’t about money. It was about the lack of respect for me, my work and the firm. And a client who doesn’t respect me doesn’t get to be my client anymore. I would have had the same response to a client or potential client who was rude to me or anyone else at the firm. I can handle clients who are high-drama, but I have no tolerance for disrespect.
I’ve learned as a lawyer that we teach clients how to treat us. We set the tone and the boundaries of the relationship. We get to decide how we handle payments, whether we are accessible after hours or on weekends, and we set the expectations for how clients communicate with us.
A young lawyer wrote a blog post about dealing with an irate opposing counsel. When she wouldn’t stop screaming at him, he told her to call him back when she calmed down and he hung up the phone. She immediately called him back and continued screaming, and he hung up again. The same rule could easily be applied to a screaming client. We’re no one’s punching bag.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with clients asking questions about their bill, of course. It’s refusing to pay what the lawyer is reasonably owed that I take issue with.
A few times in my legal career to date I’ve worked with clients who weren’t so problematic that I felt the need to disengage from the representation, but I won’t let them hire me again once their case is complete. I’ll tell them that I’m unavailable to assist them and send them to the county lawyer referral service (because friends don’t send friends bad referrals).
In my contact database, I have a group called “Black Ball.” These are people I will not work with or for, and people to whom I will never refer work. This list is for all types of professionals, not just lawyers and prospective clients. I don’t tell anyone they’re on this list; it’s something I keep just for me.
This is one of the best pieces of advice I heard during my first year in practice. If a prospective client is causing headaches, they don’t get to become a client, because they’ve already shown how they will treat the firm.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t go to law school to be miserable as a lawyer. I don’t mind challenging clients much of the time, but no client is worth my peace of mind.
Circling back to my story, once I decided to disengage from this client, I respectfully closed out their file, sent them copies of the documents they might need to continue to pursue these matters on his own, and wished them well. (Note: Be sure to follow your jurisdiction’s rules when declining or terminating representation.)
I wasn’t angry — it was a matter-of-fact thing I had to do. I have better things to do with my energy, like work on other projects and for other clients, than to be angry with this person.
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