Bad Clients

Christina Gagnier

Ed. note: Please welcome Christina Gagnier, who will be covering small law firm practice. You can read her full bio at the end of this post.

When you are starting out, or even eight years in to running your own firm, you want clients. You need people coming through the door, physically or virtually, who are willing to pay for your legal services.

As much as you want to take all of the clients that you can get, you have to look out for the red flags — those potential clients who are going to be more trouble than they are worth or may lead you down a rabbit hole. Two stories highlight different types of potential client red flags…

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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.”

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How do you deal with a difficult client?

Don’t be ridiculous: I’m not a difficult client! You’re a difficult lawyer!

I’m pretty busy. So how many drafts of your brief do you think I want to review?

One, reflecting your very best work? Or six, with each version fixing a typo or massaging the language in footnote three, so that I can see your next iteration?

When do you think I want to see your draft?

The morning it’s due, so that I won’t have a chance even to read the thing and, if I manage to read it, you won’t have time to make corrections? Or three days before it’s due, so we have time to make the brief right?

Do you think I want to circle all the typos and cite-checking errors in the draft you send to me? Believe me, I do not want to do this. But I can’t help myself: I spent two years entombed in the sub-basement of the library at The University of Michigan cite-checking articles and imprinting the Bluebook on my brain. I’d be delighted not to notice your errors, but I don’t have that capacity. This stuff is hard-wired into my very core.

How about your run-on sentences, use of the passive voice, and other grammatical and stylistic errors?

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One of the main differences between small law firms and Biglaw is who hires the lawyer. While both receive calls from the actual individual (person) client, general counsel, or corporate representative, the consumer-type disciplines (personal injury, criminal, divorce, employment (plaintiff), and immigration) are usually smaller shops, and usually get the call from the actual person needing representation.

Most of the time this person has never hired a lawyer. So the conversation will be much different than the call from a general counsel who understands typical billing formats, or an insurance company agent, who tells you what you’re going to bill and not bill.

I’m writing today for those who’ve been in small law firms for less than five years. The rest of you know the drill, you’ve heard the buzzwords and phrases, and (hopefully) you’ve taken control of your time in a way that shortcuts the worthless conversations from potential clients. From a business perspective, small law firm practice is an exercise in cash flow. While lines of credit are available, many small law firms don’t like to go that route. So every potential client is important, especially when you haven’t reached that stride where you can claim a “book of business.”

Saying “no” before the client makes it clear that it’s “no,” is tough. Did you just give up money? Was there another way to get the client “signed up?”

I draw lines. I am criticized for that, but it’s my practice and it’s worked for me. Normally when I don’t get the case these days, I hear about who got the case, which vindicates my choice to shortcut the conversation.

A recurring theme here is that what works for me may not work for you. OK. Did I ever indicate I give a crap?

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There is nothing more important to lawyers than time. Time spent on cases (especially if you’re in trying to win the “most billable hours” contest award at your funeral), time in the day to “do everything,” time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Everything comes down to time. The reason you don’t do certain things is because you claim to “have no time.”

Lawyers base their entire lives on time. Many try to figure out the latest time when they can roll out of bed to be on time to the office or court. We live on deadlines. We appear in court when told, file documents on certain dates (or fax them on certain dates at 4:59), and we set appointments for things. There are other things we want to do -– other things we need to do, but we use the excuse of “no time” as a crutch.

Truth is, we have plenty of time, we just don’t use it well. We let our practices control us, instead of trying to control our practices. Clients and cases will run lives, if you let them. Some lawyers believe the essence of being a lawyer is letting clients run their lives, we must let clients know we are available 24/7.

You can call me 24/7, but I’m no longer answering the phone when I’m doing something I consider more important than making money…

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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….

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