You Ask…I Answer: I Want To Fire A Pro Bono Client. What Say You?

Question: Thank you so much for your website. I hung out a shingle, scared to DEATH, and then I found you. You have helped me draw many deep breaths since I went solo as a brand new attorney, and I am so grateful for your help.

If you have any time to share some thoughts with me, I would appreciate it. I am struggling with my decision to fire a pro bono client. I’m sure I’m not the only new attorney/solo who takes on pro bono clients because I 1) have the time and 2) want to help. How do I fire a pro bono client who is resisting my best efforts at client control? I represent a domestic violence survivor pro bono and she’s disrespectful and hard to work with. I’ve gone from feeling really good about what I’ve been able to do for her to dreading her calls. I’ve finally grown a spine and started strongly defining (to her) what I can and cannot help her with, but I’m not getting anywhere. I’m starting to get resentful, and I know this makes me a less effective advocate for her. I know there are many low income DV victims in my community who need my help and who will not be as difficult. But I just plain feel guilty contemplating firing this client because I know she has a very small chance of replacing me, and opposing counsel will take full advantage of her pro se status. I also fully anticipate some very ugly words if I fire her in person or over the phone. She’s started taking her frustration out on me.

Any thoughts?

Answer:

Thank you for your kind words about my blog.  I’m glad I give you the kind of support you need.

Whether this woman is paying you or not doesn’t change your exposure to malpractice, doesn’t change your professional obligations to her OR her obligations to you as a client.  You are entitled to respect and cooperation. Whether pro bono or not, I’m sure you have a clause in your retainer agreement which states you have the right to terminate representation pursuant to the Rules of Professional Conduct in your state and/or any local customs of your courts IF the client does not cooperate or makes it difficult for you to represent her.  She needs to be reminded that just because she isn’t paying for your services doesn’t mean that your services are not worth paying for.  And you need to remember this, too. This type of client, although you sympathize with her plight, is:

  • dragging you down professionally;
  • eating up your time which you could be using to market your services and educating yourself on how to get paying clients;
  • making you regret your generosity;
  • In making you regret your generosity, you may feel disinclined to do pro bono work for “many low income DV victims in my community who need my help.”

Do not turn over your “power” to one bad client regardless their personal situation.  Pro bono work poorly handled from a business perspective could very well put you out of business. (It would be interesting to see how many hours you could have billed to see the dollar value of the time you generously donated.)Pro bono work is a gift you give back to the community and it is part of a well-designed business plan.  Understand its place in the worklife of a solo practitioner.

If you need to fire her, make sure you do it properly (get advice from a more seasoned lawyer) and for your safety, make sure you have someone present.  Let her understand she has created this situation, and while you sympathize with her plight, she has made it impossible for you to work with her.  If she is indigent, find out if there are other legal aid services or other attorneys who do similar pro bono work and provide the names of the agencies and the attorneys with telephone numbers so she has some direction.

Again, just because no money has changed hands does not mean you should treat her any differently than a paying client who is disruptive or uncooperative.  If you make a mistake, your license to practice is still on the line.

Let us know how it works out.  And if others have a suggestion, please add to the discussion.

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2 comments on “You Ask…I Answer: I Want To Fire A Pro Bono Client. What Say You?

  • I have consistently found in my career thus far that problem clients I have taken on pro-bono are far worse that problem clients who I am billing. The inevitable retort from the pro-bono clients is something like, “Oh, so you think you can treat me worse/don’t have to work hard on my case because I’m not paying you?” when the reality is you are probably working as hard, if not harder, on her case than on cases for paying clients. This, incidentally, is why I track my time on all cases. Show them the time logs (and what their bill would have been had they been paying).

    My nice response to the pro-bono complaint is, “Actually, I’m working as hard or harder on your case *because* you’re not paying me. I took your case because I believed in it. I made a commitment to you, but right now you’re not keeping your commitment to me.” From there you either agree to take a few days to think about continuing or you just end it.

    Good luck.

  • First, this is an excellent example of why attorneys should only take clients placed or referred by legal services providers, so that the pro bono attorney can get help when the client is out of control.

    Second, extremely difficult clients may have mental health issues, including personality disorders, which may cause them to confuse reality and fanstasy/dreams/nightmares. If you suspect this is an issue, meet with a mental health professional yourself to discuss the traits/symptoms your client is exhibiting to get an idea of what types of mental health issues your client is facing, then tell your client you can only continue to assist her if she receives appropriate counseling. (Also get help yourself with setting boundaries, if you need it.) Otherwise you may get hit with all sorts of outlandish charges by your clients. This is especially true if the client exhibits “black and white” thinking, living in a world where there are no shades of gray, only good/bad, love/hate, yes/no. Ditto for emotions that are over the top, even when domestic violence is involved. Crying tantrums and other emotional dysregulation are major warning signs that you could be in trouble, your client could turn on you and consider you a villain in the story of her life. (And remember you can and should ask your client about what drugs she is using. If prescribed, does she have a current supply or is she self-medicating? If she is using drugs for which she doesn’t have a prescription or which are illegal, you need to know that as well. If she resists, tell her that as her attorney you need to know everything that might come out at a hearing.)

    Third, the more difficult the client, the more you need detailed notes on every contact and a letter to the client summarizing every conversation. Before you hang up or end a meeting, ask your client to summarize what the two of you have discussed and the actions you both will take. Don’t fear being patronizing. If this gets away from you, it can become a huge problem.

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