Should You Fire a Client?

By | Dec.31.12 | Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Management, Law Practice Management, Professionalism

As 2012 draws to a close, we’re celebrating Attorney at Work’s second year of delivering “one really good idea every day”—every working day, that is. During this holiday hiatus, we are bringing back some of our most popular posts. Today, it’s Simon Chester’s important New Year’s reminder about the mental toughness required to build your successful practice. 

When you are a new lawyer, it seems any client should be welcomed with open arms. More mature lawyers know that’s not necessarily so.

Which brings me to a friend of mine who used to practice law in Columbia, SC, and his New Year’s ritual of client choice. Let’s call him Al—not out of some strange homage to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” but because his name is, well, Al.

Every year, Al gave himself a present. Late in the afternoon on New Year’s Day, he’d settle into a rocking chair looking out over his back garden, a glass of George Stagg whisky in his hand. Rocking gently, Al would take stock of the year and consider how his firm had fared. How he had done. Not so different from you or me, but Al’s annual ritual had a punchline. As he sipped his whisky, he considered each one of his clients—which had been the most difficult, the most challenging to manage, the least pleasant to work with.

Al reckoned there were always a few clients who took more energy than all the others put together. Who were constant trials. Clients whom he could sense would enjoy complaining about him. Or even suing him. Clients who were not worth the trouble.

He would pick one of them. And he would fire that client.

It was always an enormous relief to make the decision. Later, he would wind down the work for the client, finish the last transaction and, with the final bill, send a letter confirming that the attorney-client relationship was at an end.

In this way, year after year, Al struck one client from the list without regret. Over time, his client list came more into focus. These were the clients whose work he enjoyed. Clients who became friends, who paid on time and who valued his work. These clients became the backbone of a very successful firm. And a key part of his firm’s success was Al’s annual ritual of client choice on a winter’s afternoon overlooking the garden.

You don’t have to go to Al’s lengths. But regularly taking the time to focus on client selection—and deselection—should be part of every lawyer’s discipline.

Law practice gurus like Anthony Davis tell us that being rigorous about client selection not only is good for risk management, it’s also good for the bottom line. And it’s good for lawyer happiness.

It certainly worked for Al.

Simon Chester is a business and litigation partner with Heenan Blaikie in Toronto. His career includes law teaching, government service and 25 years of private practice. A Fellow and past-President of the College of Law Practice Management, he has spoken on professional and technology issues to hundreds of groups in nine countries. Simon blogs at Slaw.

This post from the Attorney at Work archives originally appeared in January 2011.

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4 Responses to “Should You Fire a Client?”

  1. Alex Kleanthous
    2 January 2013 at 6:46 pm #

    This is one of the most difficult but important issue for lawyers in private practice, especially as things are now far more competitive. Regrettably, sometimes it is necessary for ethical reasons, but also because the client is playing a game of expecting miracles or knowing that the lawyer has ethical constraints. With experience, it becomes easier to spot clients that spell trouble at the point of instruction and to politely turn them down at that point.

  2. Barry Doyle
    13 January 2013 at 12:02 am #

    At my office, it is the blood pressure test. If I feel my blood pressure start to go up when I hear that you are on the phone or see an e-mail come in from you, it’s time for you to go. I have always felt better after having the discussion with the client about how they probably need a better lawyer who is going to make them happier. Once you clear the bad energy that is being generated with the kind of client you need to part ways with, it much easier to enjoy your work and effectively serve the clients you want to work with.