You Ask…I Answer. “I Want To Fire A Pro Bono Client”

Donald TrumpQuestion: 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 the Solo Practice University blog. I’m glad we 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 trust you have a clause in your retainer agreement pertaining to terminating representation pursuant to the Rules of Professional Conduct in your jurisdiction and/or any local customs of your courts IF the client does not cooperate or makes it difficult for you to continue representation. Your client needs to be reminded that just because she isn’t paying a fee for your services doesn’t mean your services aren’t worth paying for. 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”

  • One component to add that may help in future situations such as these is that I always do a retainer agreement or retainer letter, particularly in domestic situations, regardless of whether they are pro bono. I have the client sign the retainer or letter to ensure a mutual agreement and understanding. The retainer/agreement always includes language regarding dissolving the relationship. I have found this very helpful when working with a difficult client, including pro bono. Being able to reference the agreement reinforces the relationship. I also have gotten to the point that I don’t do straight probono, but will take a small fee to ensure that the client appreciates the effort. Moreover, probono or not, I always do a billing to show them how much work I have done on their behalf. These are some tools/tips that will help going forward.

  • I have been in your position. If you have entered an appearance in court on behalf of this client, you will probably have to petition the judge to allow you to withdraw, and my experience trying to do this was very challenging, although in the end, my petition was granted. Judges, for good reasons, are reluctant to allow a pro bono counsel to withdraw because they are aware of exactly the problem you identified: the difficulty of finding substitute counsel. But, if your client is making it impossible for you to provide adequate representation, and you can show that to the court, it’s worth it to ask. Obviously, if you can find someone to take the case, you ought to be able to do a straight substitution of counsel filing, with client consent. Good Luck.

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