We’ve all been there. We thought we had a great relationship with a client and the next thing we know we’re getting a letter from another attorney asking for our client’s file. You’re surprised, hurt, don’t understand what happened. You may even try to call the client but by this time the client isn’t necessarily forthcoming. So, you get upset for a while, or you celebrate because the client was a pain in the butt. But what you don’t really do is assess. You move on.
Therein lies the problem. You decide it was out of your hands. Wrong. You need to understand why the client fired you.
Here are some of the big reasons clients fire lawyers and it’s an opportunity for you to reflect and then create systems to avoid the avoidable:
Do you have a system in place for regular communication, progress reports, weekly or monthly contacts or consults to bring the client up to speed? Is the client informed at the time of retention what the protocols are, the natural flow of their legal matter through the courts or transaction? Does the client have different ideas of what they’d like or need and are you taking this into consideration or ignoring? Communication (lack of) remains the number one reason clients grieve attorneys, never mind firing them. Are your clients leaving you because you don’t communicate with them in the way they need?
Lesson: You need to check your communication protocols with clients through their legal matter. Do you have a definite turnaround time for returning phone calls? Is it easy for clients to access information about their legal matter on line through a client portal? Have a handout you provide to clients upon retention outlining office procedures for communications so there are no surprises and you can set their expectations. There are technologies that can assist you with all of these issues. You just need to recognize and commit to faithful execution.
You Sold The Client A Set of Skills You Don’t Have.
Yes. You did. You know you did. Your mother’s best friend who has known you your whole life wants you to do her will. You’re a family lawyer. You want to do her a favor and you think it can’t be that hard. She wants you. You want to help. Until it goes south. Or, you want to learn a new area of law and someone is referred to you. You figure you’ll find a mentor (you don’t already have one in place) and you think you can figure it out. Plus, it’s potentially a big fee. Besides all the potential malpractice and grievance issues that could materialize as a result of this approach, you don’t know how to answer all the questions the client has. You’re fired.
This is a very dangerous area. You’ve seen stories online about lawyers who jump into the frying pan and get scorched. Not pretty. It can be very painful for your practice, too, financially and professionally. It’s a disaster waiting to happen for both you and your client. This often happens when someone who knows you wants to hire you regardless and your gut says no and you go against your gut. There is a fine line. And you know when you’ve crossed it. Don’t cross it.
Lesson: If you want to try a new practice area, have mentors in place, do your homework ahead of time and only then take on your first client with the understanding that you reserve the right to bring in additional counsel. Have the client agree to this in the retainer. You may ask, ‘why take on something you are not fully prepared to handle from beginning to end?’ Because that’s not always an option available to you when you are trying to expand your business. You have to start somewhere. If it is done methodically, intelligently and with the client’s understanding and agreement and best interests first and foremost, you can do it properly and ethically. And if there comes a time the client wants to part company, or you determine you need to step away from the legal matter and refer it out, the client was never misled. There are no miscommunications.
You Don’t Have the Right Working Relationship With Your Client.
Not every client is the right fit for you no matter how much you may want a case. You may be low key and the client wants to micro-manage you and her case. You may tell the client ‘leave it in my hands’ and not communicate what you are doing. Your client may need to be an active partner in his legal matter. Or vice versa.
Lesson: Know your working style. And also know if you can modify your style based upon a client’s need. Now, this isn’t saying change office protocols that ensure proper work flow and required standard communications. It means understand if you need to add a little more to a protocol to accommodate the client’s needs or maybe pull back. Know if a client can be so overbearing it might bring out the worst in you. If you sense there’s nothing you will be able to do right and it won’t end well, even if you have a great resolution to your client’s legal matter, understand you may have to decline representation or fire them before they fire you. This is an art form. It takes time. The best lawyers know when to walk away from a case or know how to handle these types of clients deftly through the representation. But if a client walks away from you, don’t be shy about assessing whether or not you could have prevented it had you paid more attention to what the client needed (or didn’t) and if you were capable of adjusting anything to give them what they needed in order to stay.
You Set Yourself Up For Failure.
Did you really think through how much the representation would cost and did you convey this to the client? Did you request the right sized retainer up front? Or is the representation costing you far more out of pocket that you can’t reclaim?
Did you ask the client all the right questions to effectively represent them? Did the client withhold information and you couldn’t possibly advise them the right way without it so you set yourself up to disappoint the client?
Were your hands tied and you never even realized it until it was too late?
Lesson: Be very clear with clients what anticipated costs are for representation. Let them know what you require up front as a retainer and what is expected of them financially going forward. Let them know what level of participation you will require, the information they will have to share from the very first consultation.
If you get caught not being able to fund required experts or fees or your invoices are not paid as agreed to, be forthright with your clients as soon as possible and let them know you don’t anticipate a favorable outcome based upon the client’s lack of funding necessary costs.
Gently remind them of what they agreed to in the retainer and if it doesn’t look like it’s going to change, release the client before it becomes impossible to release them. Cut your losses before they snowball into a grievance, malpractice claim or gets you entangled in a no-payment endless litigation scenario.
Own It When It Really Is Your Fault.
A client who walks could be your wake-up call that you need to rework your approach to representation. Your team (whether receptionist, associate, paralegal inhouse or outsourced) might need greater supervision. Were there missed deadlines, lost phone calls, screwed up data input?
Lesson: Don’t just look to your own actions; measure and manage your team’s work product. Dig deep and find the answers. Even if your team is uncomfortable with this level of accountability, you still have to probe.
Your Workflow Needs Revamping.
If your firm is using antiquated and inefficient workflows, manual processes that consume endless billable and non-billable hours, uses a number of systems which don’t really mesh together seamlessly, you will have important work languish or simply forgotten to be performed.
Lesson: If you want top-notch productivity and high performance, you have to design and implement efficient workflow processes. There are so many amazing technologies to make your firm state-of-the art, profitable and client friendly, that not using them is hurting you. You might have to explore Lean Six Sigma for Solos.
When A Client Fires You, Learn From It.
Getting fired by a client can really hurt your pocketbook and/or your pride. But if you let this learning opportunity go by without gleaning anything, it will repeat itself until you no longer have a law practice. Learn from these ‘failures’. If you do, you will grow your practice into a law firm with a great reputation and one clients and lawyers alike will seek out.