Money, Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners

‘Double The Retainer’

Keith Lee

I was sitting in my office yesterday afternoon when my phone dinged. It was one of my law partners. He had sent me a picture of our other partner standing in front of an auditorium with about seventy-five people in it. They had gone to one of the local law schools here to speak about dealing with clients. Like many other law schools, this law school is focusing on providing their students some manner of real-world experiential education in the elusive hopes of making students “practice-ready.” An impossible task, but at least students are exposed to practicing lawyers, even if just for a day. I mean, it’s better than a seminar on Harry Potter and the Law.

After speaking for a bit, they took questions from the students. Eventually, someone asked what to do about a difficult client. The response?

“Double the retainer.”

After the crowd chuckled, he added: “In all seriousness, double the retainer.”

Anyone who had been practicing law even a scant six months has heard such advice from a more experienced lawyer. Some lawyers are serious about it. Others mention it tongue-in-cheek, but barely so. The message isn’t so much that a lawyer needs to try and get as much money as possible, rather, some clients just aren’t worth the money. You’re better off not having them.

That’s a tall order for a small firm, where clients can be few and far between at times. Doubly so if you are just starting out and are desperate for clients. Bills piling up, loans payments, rent due next month — you’re likely to sign up anything that comes through your door with a pulse. Sometimes that’s what you have to do to survive. But it’s far from ideal.

Perhaps one of the toughest things for lawyers who practice in small firms to learn is the ability to say “no” to new clients. Just because someone walks into your office with a problem doesn’t mean you have to take them on as a client. It can be a hard thing to turn away a paying client, but you’re likely better off.

Here’s the thing, there are going to be some people who walk into your office who are going to be straight up, pain-in-the-asses. Over time, you’ll learn to recognize them. They’ll talk a lot about how wronged they were. How evil and bad the people on the other side of the problem are, and that they want justice. That it’s not about the money to them, it’s the principle of the thing. You don’t want these people as clients. You’re far better off saying, “no thank you,” and sending them on their way.

Otherwise you’re going to get six emails from them, in a two-hour period, the day after they retained you, asking for updates about their case. They’ll call twice a week, inquiring about what the other party has been doing. God forbid, but if you somehow gave them your cell phone number, expect text messages from them at 2 a.m.

And even if you respond to all their communications, assuage their worries, and somehow deliver a favorable resolution to their problem — they’ll still be upset. Your fee was too high. It took too long to resolve the case. You weren’t responsive enough. If you’re really lucky, maybe they’ll file a bar complaint too.

At some point in their career, every lawyer is going to have difficult clients. It’s part and parcel of the profession. But do yourself a favor and learn to recognize unreasonably difficult clients — and avoid them. If such a client comes into your office and they legitimately have a case, perhaps send them to another lawyer who deals with those matters. Someone else who is just starting out and trying to get their practice off the ground. Let them deal with those headaches.

In the long run, you’ll be far better off avoiding the unreasonably difficult client — and the time sink that it entails.


Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at keith.lee@hamerlawgroup.com or on Twitter at @associatesmind.

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