Small Law Firms

The Practice: It’s Not Always About the Clients

Lawyers often let themselves be abused by clients. After all, the clients pay the fees, and because they pay the fees, they are entitled to behave how they want. Part of being a lawyer is learning that you have to accept clients who treat you and your staff like garbage.

And I’ve never understood that.

Sure, lawyers have clients that are emotional, anxious, demanding, time consuming, or confused, but our job is to try and use the “counselor” part of “attorney and counselor at law,” and help them through the journey as best as possible. Why that has to mean we just take their crap to no end is a ridiculous notion.

Small-firm lawyers are more often the recipients of abusive clients. The fees are usually being paid by an individual or small company instead of by some insurance company in another state. Instead of dealing with a legal issue that affects a whole company, it’s often someone’s marriage, injury, arrest, or contract dispute — something personal. The client has more of a one-on-one relationship with a lawyer and sees that lawyer as the reason for success, and failure.

The reason lawyers think state bars go after small-firm lawyers more than Biglaw lawyers is simple — there are more of us, and Biglaw clients usually (but not always) don’t see the bar disciplinary process as a worthy forum for their issues.

So we get threatened more, asked for fees back more, and often feel under siege by bad clients….

When I was a young lawyer, I had a client who couldn’t stay out of trouble. His Mom couldn’t understand how I allowed him to continue to get arrested because, of course, he had done nothing wrong, and there was no way he was going to jail, not for case 1, 2, 3, or 4. When I presented the state’s position on the case(sssss) to the family, I was threatened with a bar complaint if I didn’t refund all monies ever received for every case.

I got scared. Real scared. Now I laugh about it, but I didn’t back then.

Now I wouldn’t take that client. I would see Mom’s attitude at the initial consultation (more than the dollar signs), and politely refer them to someone else. I can do that now, but I understand maybe you can’t because you need that fee, and you’re willing to deal with this. I used to be more interested in the fee than the fit between lawyer and client. I had to be. It sucks, but it’s part of building a practice. I’ve realized I’d rather lose the fee than take on a headache. Yes, I still need to make money, but not to the extent that I’m willing to accept a client I know is a problem from the start.

Which leads me to my strategy for dealing with clients that you realize aren’t a good fit, and that are abusive with you, your time, and your staff (even if your staff is just you).

First, I try to fix things. Always. I try real hard. I tell the client my job is only to help them, but I need them to help as well. The receptionist didn’t deny the motion, and she’s not the reason I’m in court and can’t return your call for a couple hours. I explain that their strategy may have seemed like a good idea, but that’s why they hired me, so I could tell them it’s a really bad idea, and that there’s a better idea. I try to tone down the client.

Some clients though, are beyond any ability to act like normal people. They’re just angry, abusive, and because “I’m paying your fee,” feel they have the right to do whatever they want. For them, they get fired. I embrace the philosophy of the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher. From the must-read Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success:

“One woman who frequently flew on Southwest, was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.
In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.’”

Kelleher’s philosophy?

“The customer is sometimes wrong. We don’t carry those sorts of customers. We write to them and say, ‘Fly somebody else. Don’t abuse our people.’”

Obviously, there are cases in which you cannot fire the client, because of court obligations, or other reasons. And I know that you may be scared of having to give money back, or a bar complaint, or bad review on Yelp, but you cannot operate from weakness.

There are those that will abuse you if they can, if you let them.


Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at

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