There are some clients who are not worth the pain, hassle, and headache that they represent. Here’s when and how to fire problematic clients.
By Odette Pollar, Consultant
Whether you are with a large firm or a mid-sized practice, the intricacies and complexities of practicing family law can be both challenging and rewarding. The situations you face continuously change, whether they involve a custody case, determining the equitable distribution of marital property during a divorce, or the ever-changing landscape of surrogacy issues. As new opportunities arise and your experience deepens, you need to manage your practice differently in order to continue to grow and develop. Eventually, you will face a hurdle that you probably did not anticipate when you first started practicing: there are some clients who are not worth the pain, hassle, and headache that they represent. At some point, you will have to fire a client or, even a group of clients. This can be accomplished in several ways.
Fire Problematic Clients Indirectly by Increasing Fees
Clients who have been with you since early in your career—or whom you may have helped over the last decade with prenuptial agreements, setting up a trust, and maybe even a divorce—may not be able to afford your increased fees. Although this is not strictly a firing situation, the effect is the same. Many independent firms and not-so-small companies struggle with this issue: you feel loyalty to the clients who believed in you initially; they have worked with you longer than any of your more recent, higher-paying clients; and some of them may have even become friends. However, your costs have continued to rise, your knowledge and skills have increased, and you are no longer able to afford to “carry” the client.
Once you make the decision to increase a client’s fee structure, give them a long lead-time. Let them know in August that effective January 1st your rates will change. It is very important to call personally to let them know how much you value their business and care about their success. Offer any help you can during the transition. Perhaps there is a way you can provide a scaled-down portion of the services you used to provide. Offer alternatives. If you know of another resource that would be helpful, provide a referral.
When to Leave a Difficult Client Behind
Sometimes you will let a client go over philosophical differences where, although their side may be valid, it’s not the way you choose to run your business. For example, if you serve on a board of directors for an arts group, you may disagree with the direction the organization is headed and feel you cannot make a difference any longer. Or if you sit on an advisory council where you are paid for your advice and your client consistently refuses to heed it, this can be frustrating to you professionally—even though the client has the right to refuse your advice.
You must sever relations with a client when they are: extremely difficult to work with; demand a lot of your time without expecting to pay for it, or demand an unreasonable response time from your staff; or if they drive you crazy on a regular basis regarding small and large matters alike, for example, by telling you that the court date is not convenient and expecting you to reschedule it as if it were the equivalent of a dental appointment. Family courts often have the most crowded dockets. Clients with impossibly high standards, who constantly change their minds thereby producing more work for your staff, or who hide assets from you and try to cheat the system while using you as a middleman, probably need to find new representation. At this point, it is no longer worth the hit to your mental health.
Separating Yourself from Toxic Clients
Clients that can be described as toxic have to go as well. They may be rude, nasty, disrespectful, and unethical; they may tell untruths, cheat, and steal; or they may carry a reputation that reflects badly on your firm for representing them. Clients are toxic if they are verbally abusive or highly unpleasant to work with, fail to pay bills for your services in full, or are continually late to meetings and appointments. Life can be difficult enough on a day-to-day basis. People who run their lives this way don’t need to be a part of yours.
Say Goodbye on the Best Terms Possible
In general, it is best to end relationships without animosity if possible. Try to avoid making enemies and burning bridges that may cause problems in the future, particularly if you are in a region or community that is relatively close-knit. In the final discussion, you don’t necessarily want the client to know that they have been fired. Ideally, the client should view the parting as a mutual decision. Convince them it is in their best interest to go elsewhere.
As difficult and uncomfortable as it may be to say goodbye, know that you will be able to replace that client. There really is enough work available for family law attorneys that you do not need to tolerate toxic, disrespectful, unethical, or unreasonably nitpicky clients. Take a deep breath and move on. Raise your rates when you need to. Surprisingly, raising your fees often increases business by placing you in a different ballpark with entirely new opportunities.
Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. Her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. She is also the president of Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA. SmartWaysToWork.com.