This Business of Clients

Should You Fire a Client?

By | Jun.12.12 | Client Service, Daily Dispatch, Law Practice Management, Relationships

In a week of posts devoted to “This Business of Clients,” Attorney at Work Advisor Simon Chester has an important reminder about the flip side of client service—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.

Image © Imagezoo.

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3 Responses to “Should You Fire a Client?”

  1. john noone
    12 June 2012 at 9:48 am #

    Thoughts are true – to a limited degree. having been a client previously and as an attorney now, i know there are two sides to a relationship. the problem is too often attorneys embark on some path which commits the client and then the attorney withdraws leaving the client in a bad position that was created by the attorney who withdraws.

    analogy: how would most attorneys feel if they were operated on by a doctor who quit after the basic surgery was completed; yet the aftermath was still to be determined? probably not good. so the same principle should be applied to clients.

    are the client’s needs being met? has the client paid and has the attorney
    performed in the best manner possible? An end or beginning of the year reflection should not be necessary if the goals and objectives are attainable on the attorney-client relationship.

  2. Erik Weingold
    12 June 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    I’d really like to see that letter terminating the attorney-client relationship.

  3. simon chester
    12 June 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Actually Erik, Al’s not that sort of guy. He’d have taken the jerk client out for a drink and let him know gently that it just wasn’t working, and that they should be working out a transition plan.

    And gently, but firmly, make that happen. Even if it took a month or two.

    Doing the whole thing by letter – or even worse e-mail – would simply have raised the risks of complaints or claims or unpaid bills.