The end of this "Chair's message" does NOT end with April fools! The discussion below is real and you can do it!! Promise!
While so many have this impression of lawyers, tons of jokes about our profession, constantly hearing about our fees and the never ending claim of a "horrible" marital and family law saga that each of us has "heard" about.
But do those legal naysayers ever consider the type of practice we really are entrenched in? The clients we are dealing with? The emotional roller coasters we ride along with each of them? Likely not.
How many times are you asked "How do you do that work?" "Isn't it so stressful, emotional, personal?" and "Doesn't it impact your personal life?" For so long, I always found myself answering this with "Well, of course at times it can be stressful, but I love what I do!" Lately, I have been struggling with that answer. Trying to balance running a law practice, representing clients to the best of my ability, litigating those cases that require litigation and ensuring I am always "available" to my clients, by phone, email or otherwise. All while trying to maintain some of my own life, my family and other commitments, outside of my work. It feels as if I am explaining what we all know, which is that this area of law requires a certain perspective, an understanding that this type of law is unique and requires the ability to recognize the emotional position of our clients lives and families, while trying to strike a balance between becoming emotionally invested in clients family law matters, while counseling them appropriately throughout their family law case. So, yes, at times, it is hard and stressful, but at the end of the day, there is no other practice area I would choose.
Is it always rainbows and unicorns? NO! It is no easy feat, but when comparing the pros and cons, most of us will agree that the pros outweigh the cons and that is why we continue.
Yet, it is equally important for us to allow ourselves the right to be selective, whatever that may be for your firm or practice. Our clients demand responses, at times hand holding, their stress essentially becomes our responsibility and that is a lot for any one person. Being able to say "no" to a prospective client or even a current client and parting ways, nicely, is a true gift, but not all of us are very good at it. In fact, my office has joked with me by asking "Have you EVER broken up with ANYONE in your life?" and "You are the WORST at cutting bait." Of course, I say I am going to do it, I gear up for it, but then when I try, the whole, "it's not you, it's me," strategy, I feel badly or my bleeding heart, literally, won't allow me to leave the person, going through this process, "hanging." Although we all laughed, it really made me think...
Why do we allow clients to blame us for their problems? Why do we allow clients to threaten not to pay their bill when they don't get their way? Why do we sacrifice our own family, friends or life to "be there" for clients, even when they are their own worst enemies and cause their own issues, typically by not taking our advice in the first place?
For some, the answer is simple: fear of not having clients or the next client. For others, what is it? I don't have the answer, but I do know that the clients that cause the MOST stress, make the most noise and are simply not nice to you or your office staff, are always the ones that also don't pay, cause the worst grief and make this practice more stressful than it needs to be. Honestly what is worse than working hard for a client, helping them all the way through and not getting paid for your time and services? Payment which by the way was a contractual arrangement from the onset? NOTHING!
As my former boss once said to me "If your gut tells you this client is going to cause grief, RUN." He was SO RIGHT!
In the last year, I began to see that the number of cases I have, is irrelevant. It is the quality of the client, case and facts that really counts. I have started to be brutally honest, even in the initial consultation, advising a potential new client that their case does not need or justify my services, that it seems the cost is likely prohibitive or whatever other "gut" feeling I have, from the onset. At times I have dissuaded potential new clients from even coming in for the consultation when it is clear that either they are a problem client, have had several lawyers already, cannot afford my services or seem to know more than me from the very first conversation.
This is actually exhilarating! Has this impacted my business? Not really! Even if it has given me "less" cases, it has NOT given me less income. Why? Because as I said above, the problem cases/clients are also the ones that likely do not pay, or at least not on time and cause you more grief, stress and issues than the fees you MAY collect are ultimately worth.
Have you ever gone on a date, or out with friends, where one person, whom you least expect, is NOT nice to the server or bartender? Not just not nice, but downright nasty! Of course, you look mortified and in shock at this persons behavior, in utter disbelief, and likely do not continue to associate with that person. It changes your entire view of this person. Well, this person is exactly like the client that will insult your assistant, not take your advice, and likely not pay your hard earned fees, regardless of the work, time or results you provide to them. Talk about good deeds, punishment, you know...
Typically, our fellow lawyers say it's the client we worry about firing us, the lawyer, because they are not satisfied for whatever reason. The natural assumption is that we, as lawyers, are gun-shy [that means downright scared] about firing clients.
Why? Well, we fear the negative impact, which may result, even if totally unjustified. Such as bar complaints, malpractice lawsuits, and negative reviews. Possibly it is because we were groomed by being told that clients are always right. So as lawyers, often we put up with a lot to keep a "bad" client.
Now, I can only speak from my 13 years of experience as a lawyer, so maybe some failed lawyer with much less experience or some former lawyer "selling the dream" can advise better, but there is certain conduct that clients exhibit that should lead you to fire them.
There is the "uncooperative" client. This doesn't mean they disagree with you. Uncooperative, in the "fire the client" sense, are clients who miss appointments, are constantly late, don't respond to communications or provide you information or documents you need to effectively represent them. This client believes you are on their schedule and terms.
Every retainer agreement should have a "client cooperation" clause. Something as simple as:
In order to effectively represent a client, the Firm requires Client cooperation. This means that in order to comply with deadlines, document requests and preparation for events, the Client agrees to assist the Firm in document production, requests and preparation for events required to represent the Client. Client agrees to assist the Firm in the representation of the Client and communicate with the Firm in the agreed upon mode of communication. Client agrees to timely provide requested documents to avoid the need to seek repeated delays in a pending case or risk sanctions for any reason. Failure to cooperate with the Firm, at the sole discretion of the Firm, will result in termination of this Agreement, and if there is a pending court proceeding, a motion to withdraw.
You can put whatever you want (subject to ethics considerations), and use the clause to remind the client that this type of behavior is not only important to your ability to properly represent the client, but is also part of your agreement.
Obviously things happen and you need to be flexible, but by having a written agreement on more than just fees, you let the client know how you expect the relationship to work. In fact, review the Agreement with the client, BEFORE they execute the document and never expect the client to read this on their own, other than once things already went south and they are reviewing for their own legal authority.
Period, end of story - uncooperative clients should be fired.
Clients who have a "shadow" lawyer
. My personal favorite, next to the "internet" search lawyer or the "friend" that also had the SAME situation and "won" or "took their spouse to the cleaner". For example the client who tells you about a case with an unheard of award of alimony, child support in numbers so ridiculous that it is more than 100 children would ever need of, and of course sole parental responsibility and 100% timesharing. Right, of course that is true because it is SO UNLIKELY, it is nearly laughable, but as if you are supposed to sit there, nod with a smile and ensure the client that you too will receive similar results, without costing them a ton of money and exiting this process with a perfect outcome!!
These are clients that shouldn't be your clients in the first place but you took them on anyway. The client came in and wanted his "friend," or worse, his brother-in-law who's a lawyer in another state, on the phone. The lawyer doesn't do what you do, but the client wants this other lawyer copied on everything. Every strategy you come up with has to be run by this other lawyer. Every pleading you draft is reviewed by him. He (the lawyer) says he "doesn't want to step on your toes," but questions every single thing you suggest, do, think of, and write. Better yet, is the client that compares everything involved in the representation to what they read or heard from some "made up" person that had a much better lawyer or much better outcome that you have advised your client about.
from this client or fire this client, stat. Your professional independence is being affected, the client will find a way to blame you for anything that goes wrong, and more importantly, it's just annoying.
Then there is the "liar client". I often wonder if clients realize that the same behavior they swear they didn't exhibit is the same type of behavior they are exhibiting towards you as their lawyer.
Yes, we all know clients can be our worst enemies. We know, clients at times, lie. I'm not talking about clients who lie about what happened or the circumstances of their plight. I'm talking about clients that lie to you, about almost everything. This includes the payment of attorney's fees, time of payment of those fees, the other people they are "sharing" information with or their use of drugs and alcohol. Worse are the clients who incessantly post on "social media" that hands down do NOT only hurt their case, they are just plain stupid.
I remember being taught not to be "judgmental" of clients. Some lawyers believe that means you should just calmly nod your head "yes" at everything the client says. I'm not going to pretend I don't know the client is lying. Not being judgmental doesn't mean you shouldn't let the client know you think they are full of crap. Even if you're stupid enough to ignore the fact that you don't believe what the client is saying about his case, you shouldn't tolerate the client adding to that by lying to you about matters relating to the representation - such as why fees or costs haven't been paid, or why the client is doing the very thing they assured they would not do or their unnecessary and blatant posting of things online that just really not only do not help your case, but actually hurt it.
When do you fire a client for lying to you? When your gut tells you to do so.
Clients who don't really need you.
These types of clients do two things. One, they tell you at the initial consultation that "this is how we're going to handle this," and two, they never want to get to the issue at hand, using you to delay everything. They are going to make things worse for themselves, and they want you to help them.
When you are representing a client, the paramount concern is protection of the client. Inherent in the protection of the client is maintaining the ethics of the profession. There's also that thing called a "reputation." No client should manipulate you into putting your ethics or reputation on the back burner. If you find yourself being used as a tool, put a stop to it (unless, of course, you are a lawyer who prides himself on being used as a tool). Obviously there are cases where delay benefits the parties, but this is another gut check. If every time there's a deadline, the client calls you the night before and says, "Can we just get more time?" you need to have a heart-to-heart with the client and if you get no resolution, fire the client. This client is not seeking your counsel or representation, they are using you to delay the process.
Obviously, before you fire the client
, try to work things out with the client. Sometimes the conduct is due to anxiety or something else, and sometimes it's just that the client has other ideas about how to handle the attorney/client relationship. Just remember that similar to the clients' right to fire us, we have the same right. There is no constitutionally protected right to "keep" your lawyer when the lawyer's professional, ethical or personal boundaries are being jeopardized. Our lives are stressful enough. The ability to strike that work-life balance, maintain our health and sanity, is not easy in this profession. We have the ability and right to represent those clients that respect our advice, our retainer agreements, our professional reputations and our ethical obligations.
Lesson: Do not hold on to a client that sucks the life out of you by doing the types of things I've described and won't stop. Difficult, demanding clients are one thing, but clients that have no concept of the way you ethically and professionally practice law need to go.