Some of the first jobs that I ever had were in the retail and customer service industries. I can recall, in much of the training that I received, being told the old adage that the “customer is always right”. Having run my own practice now for over 36 years (we’ll be celebrating our 37th Anniversary next month!), I can tell you that, although the old saying is usually true (or at least should be your guiding principle), there are times when the client is not right and, the best thing for all involved is to fire the client.
I read some of the attorney listservs and discussion boards and I’ve seen some debate over this topic and discussions of why attorneys should take on or keep cases that I, frankly, wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences and lessons on when to fire a client and how to do so in the most courteous and straightforward way, so collateral damage is minimized.
TYPES OF CLIENTS (EXISTING OR POTENTIAL) TO FIRE
It can sometimes be difficult to know when you should fire a client, or to just put it off. Perhaps you don’t want to face what you fear will be a confrontation. Or, perhaps you’ve already spent a great deal of time and energy assisting them or you feel you really need to keep the revenue or business.
I am here to tell you that not every single client can be helped by you and not every single client’s fee is worth the stress, drama, possible abuse and sometimes the liability that comes with continuing to represent them.
Here are, in my opinion, some clients (or prospective clients) that may not be worth taking or keeping on:
- Those who are overly demanding and not respectful of your time (dictating that you are to be immediately accessible and “on call” for them whenever they choose)
- Those who become verbally abusive to you and/or your staff
- Those who refuse to follow your recommendations and want you to draft their estate plans the way they see fit (okay, some plan terms are discretionary and up to the client, but sometimes the client’s choices don’t make sense, are impractical or may be unethical or even illegal)
- Those who are married but rarely can agree and often have their discussions devolve into fights (this also may apply to Co-Trustees)
- Those with a financial advisor and/or CPA who dictates to you, the attorney, what to do and what their client should pay
- Those with circumstances or needs that are really outside of your scope of expertise and planning experience (e.g. require very complex and customized trust language, advanced-level estate and asset protection planning, elder law planning, etc. that you may not have experience with)
- Those who tell you they have sued or filed a State Bar complaint against their former attorney!
- Those who continually ask you to provide additional services, beyond your initial engagement, but refuse to pay their bills or repeatedly attempt to renegotiate your fees
- Those who continually fail to provide requested information, waffle on decisions, miss appointments or otherwise do not bear their responsibility as a client
The amount of time and hassle that these types of clients can bring on and the chaos and disruption that it can cause within your office is not worth it. Also, some of these situations may result in potential liability down the line if not handled properly.
STEP 1: THE “COME TO (YOUR NAME HERE)” MEETING (OR PHONE CALL)
There is always the possibility there have been communication breakdowns or misunderstandings. And, in a few cases, the client may reform their behavior once it is brought, nicely- but firmly, to their attention.
The conversation goes something like this:
“Most people seek our help because they expect us to be professionals at what we do. And we, in turn, expect our clients to also deal with us in a professional manner. I understand that [clearly, but without charged or provocative words, describe the client’s poor behavior]. I just want to let you know that if you continue to behave in this manner, we regrettably will be forced to withdraw from representing you. However, if you choose to work with us in a courteous and professional manner, we will be happy to continue to represent you the very best we can. How would you like to proceed?”
Most of the time, the client will right, then and there agree to mend their ways or decide to move on to another attorney. Either is a good resolution.
However, you must hold the line and, if the client agrees to change their ways, but doesn’t, or decides to move on to another attorney, then you need to tell the client you will be sending them a formal termination letter and immediately go to Step 2.
STEP 2: FIRING THE CLIENT
Obviously you don’t want to tick off the client so much that they then turn around and begin talking badly about you and your law firm, or worse yet want to file a complaint with the State Bar. It’s most likely that, while they may not be happy with being “let go”, it really comes down to how you handle the firing.
The firing process doesn’t have to be complex or confrontational. Assuming you’ve had the above conversation, I’ve found it much simpler and easier to send by regular mail (not e-mail) a written letter to the client, simply stating the following:
“We appreciate you having been a client of our firm.
Unfortunately, we no longer feel that we can adequately service your needs. Therefore, we ask that you please seek other qualified legal counsel to handle your estate planning matters. Once you have obtained such an attorney, please let us know and we will forward a copy of our file to them.
Thank you again for being a client of our firm. We wish you and your family the best in all your future endeavors.”
It’s simple, to the point, does not typically result in much push back or response from the client, and also helps cut off liability because you now have a written record of this correspondence in the client’s file. We will typically send this certified mail with the ability to verify that it reached the client.
As you can see, our letter intentionally doesn’t get into any details about why or what the reason is for terminating the attorney-client relationship. It simply states that we can no longer help them and advises them to seek qualified legal counsel to do so.
The only variation of this letter is if they’ve paid a retainer for us to do certain work that has not been completed. In such cases, I will include with this letter a check in the full amount that they paid (if not much has been done) or a refund of any unused retainer (along with a simple bill/accounting) or will waive any remaining fee due (again with accounting). Rarely will I ever send a bill due, as this is likely to be incendiary and not worth the resulting aggravation.
Note, depending on the terms of your engagement letter and State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct, you may not be able to terminate representation in the middle of an engagement should It seriously disadvantage the client. In such a case, you may state that you will continue to represent them for some reasonable period (say 30-60 days), after which you will expect they have obtained other legal counsel.
Also note, if the reason for termination is that the work is outside your scope of expertise and planning experience, you may want to refer the client to a few properly skilled attorneys (and may even participate in a referral fee if the new attorney properly discloses it.
At the end of the day, when the situation warrants, terminating a client is best for all parties involved—including the client!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Attorney Philip J. Kavesh is the principal of one of the largest estate planning firms in California – – Kavesh, Minor and Otis – – which has been in business since 1981. He is also the President of The Ultimate Estate Planner, Inc., which provides a variety of training, marketing and practice-building products and services for estate planning professionals.
If you would like more information or have a question for him, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 1-866-754-6477.
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