Small Law Firms

The Practice: Firing Clients

I know you were expecting a round-up of last week’s Legal Marketing Association rainbow and unicorn festival conference where this year’s theme was… well, the same as last year and the year before: “Why won’t lawyers listen to our buzz words?” Instead of a round-up of the group hug, which will only make you dumber, here’s all you need to know based on the #LMA13 Twitter feed:

Formalizing client process via increased measurement and increased services provided is making difference in accounting client satisfaction.

That comment was made after Popehat read the Twitter feed and instead of voluntarily running into the path of a fire truck, asked this question:

How will your firm embrace synergizing social leverage rebranding communication channels to market integration strategies of scale?

Of course if you didn’t go, you also missed the 4,759 announcements of:

We have another winner for our iPad giveaway! Stop by booth 300.

And that was it, buzz words and iPads. Get ready for an onslaught of marketeer emails and cold calls with game-changing new normal worthless ideas that will be criticized at next year’s conference, after you’ve paid for the marketeer to implement them in your practice.

So while all the marketeers are busy convincing you with buzz words that they have ways to get you more clients, clients, clients, I, of course, want to talk about getting rid of clients.

Can I never just jump on board and play along?

Usually, it’s the client who fires the lawyer because they are not satisfied for whatever reason. Lawyers though, are gun shy to fire clients. Lawyers fear bar complaints, malpractice suits, and negative online reviews, or they grew up being lied to taught that clients are always right. So a lawyer will put up with almost anything to keep the client.

I can only speak from 18 years of experience as a lawyer with clients, so maybe some failed lawyer with eight months’ experience or some former lawyer “selling the dream” can advise you better, but there is certain conduct that clients exhibit that should lead you to fire them.

Uncooperative clients.

“Uncooperative” doesn’t mean they disagree with you. Uncooperative, in the “fire the client” sense, means clients who miss appointments, are constantly late, don’t respond to communication, and believe you are on their schedule.

I think every retainer agreement should have a “client cooperation” clause. Something as simple as:

Client agrees to timely return phone calls and respond to emails (based on the agreed form of communication). Client agrees, but for emergencies, to advise of the need to reschedule appointments no less than 24 hours before the appointment. Client agrees to timely provide requested documents to avoid the need to seek repeated delays in a pending case. Failure to cooperate with the attorney, at the sole discretion of the attorney, 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.

Uncooperative clients should be fired.

Clients who have a “shadow” lawyer.

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. Every time you ask the client for authority to do something, he doesn’t respond right away because he’s waiting to talk to the other lawyer.

Fire this client. 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 freaking annoying.


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, I know, clients 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.

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, why the client is missing appointments, or why the client continues to tell you they will meet deadlines and don’t.

When do you fire a client for lying to you? When your gut tells you to do so.

Clients who don’t 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 one client should manipulate you into putting ethics or reputation on the back burner. If you find yourself being used as a tool (I always try to throw some red meat in here for the commentariat, even though they think it’s not intentional), whether for delay or to file some motion that has no merit, or any other reason, 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 type of client didn’t hire you for your legal work and advice, this client just expects you to “put this off” until they are ready to deal with it.

Before you fire the client.

Always 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.

But never hold on to a client that sucks the life blood out of you by doing the types of things I’ve described here 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.

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

(hidden for your protection)

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