Toxic clients. They drain your resources and push all your buttons. They inject you with anxiety and fill you with frustration. First it’s only in their presence that you feel like you hate your job; then it’s when you answer their email; then when you simply open their file. This negativity from bad clients can ooze most anywhere: your performance with other clients is a little lackluster; the office environment sours.
But worse than that: your bad clients are taking up space that could be filled with someone you’d actually like to work with. They take away mental energy you could be spending solving problems for people who make you glad you got into this line of work. Toxic clients are unlikely to send other clients your way — and those they do send to you have the risk of being just as difficult as they were.
In this post we’ll give you the red flags to watch for in potential or current clients — and let you know how to graciously (and legally) tell the toxic ones goodbye.
The best time to notice red flags in an attorney-client relationship is before it starts. But even if it’s too late for that, terminating a bad relationship with a client isn’t necessarily a selfish move — it could benefit the client as well. Your former client is then free to find an attorney who’s a better fit for them. You simply can’t be the best advocate for clients you find toxic. If they need an attorney, they deserve one who doesn’t carry this negative baggage with them.
Below is a cast of characters that can act like a flash flood eroding your sense of well-being, your confidence, your schedule, and your profits. If you recognize any of your clients in the descriptions below, consider cutting the relationship before it gets worse.
Clients worth firing:
Rule-benders and boundary-breakers: These clients consistently demand that you operate on their timeframes and ignore your own schedule. They want you to return each phone call within fifteen minutes. If you tell them you don’t take calls at certain times or on specific days, they will be consummately unable to respect those boundaries. They may accept that you don’t usually do this, but since every issue they face is an emergency, they believe it warrants extraordinary action on your part. Their state of perpetual emergency is either because their arrogance magnifies all of their needs to outlandish sizes, or because they are such poor planners that they only notices issues when they have become urgent. Either way, they will cause you headaches.
At their worst, rule-benders will try to push you into behaviors that violate laws, legal ethics, or your own principles. Never keep a client who puts your entire legal career at risk.
Brawlers and Bickerers: These clients are persistently rude, sarcastic, and belligerent. They aggressively negotiate down your fees, implying that your work isn’t worth the compensation you ask. They disagree with every decision you make, and try to push you into measures that are against your better judgment. They may first be recognized by the violent anger they express toward others — keep in mind they may soon direct that heat at you.
Of course attorneys must deal with difficult people all the time, and keep a skin tough enough not to lose sleep over it. But keep in mind that even if you feel comfortable dealing with someone’s anger-management issues, the toxicity of an aggressive personality might seep into the entire office, harming the well-being of your staff as well. When you first meet a potential client, listen to the way they speak about others. If it’s with undue belligerence, recognize that they may at some point turn their venom against you.
Complainers: Bring these clients good news about the breakthrough you’ve made on their case, and listen to them groan that this gives them more paperwork. These clients have it in for your self-esteem. No matter how thick-skinned you think you are, their perpetual criticism can eventually seep into your mind, decreasing your ability to perform with confidence in other areas. The damage they do to you might not even end with the conclusion of their case. If they’re all-complaints now, recognize that they’re not going to magically transform into grateful clients with glowing online reviews once the case is finished. Why spend all of your time on folks who will only hurt your reputation?
There are people out there who will appreciate the work you do, and remind you why you do this job. You should be focusing on them. When you devote your time to good clients, they will recommend your work to others who are like them, helping you build a practice of people who respect each other.
Time-squanderers: These clients never have their documents in order. They come in late or miss meetings altogether. They might be like the boundary-breakers, expecting you to lavish them with attention as though you have nothing else on your schedule. Or they might be the opposite of the fighter — a client who can’t do anything for themselves, and are hoping you will make their legal decisions for them.
Focus-shifters: These clients might be far more pleasant than others on this list, but when they require you to spend time on services or issues that are far outside of your specialty, it can have similarly detrimental effects. Some recommend that in cases like this, you consider outsourcing to contract attorneys. (As you know, Filevine makes this easy with dynamic teams) Otherwise, your client should be understanding when you help match them up with an attorney better fitted to their requirements.
Money-drainers: This one seems obvious: within a contingency-fee arrangement, a weak case might drain huge amounts of resources without ever bringing a return. Naturally, you need to decide when it’s time to cut your losses and move forward.
And yet this decision is much more nuanced than “cut your unprofitable clients.” Many poor and working-class clients might be fighting for sums that seem tiny compared to the amount of time they require, but would make a world of difference to them. In such cases, take the challenge and stick with those clients who support your core values as an attorney. It’s not only the right thing to do — it will also help you craft a narrative for the public about the way your work supports your community’s welfare. And if you can support an internal sense of the civic value of your work, you will have greater energy and confidence to do that work.
We don’t want to sound like a bedtime story, but don’t forget Aesop’s fable of the lion and the mouse. Supporting the little guy now with weak or low-yield cases might bring benefits to you in the future. These clients could come back with a stronger case, or send friends’ profitable cases your way.
How to drop your clients and have them thank you for it.
1. Manage expectations:
All of your clients should have a clear idea from you about what they can expect from the legal process. But, as Justice Carole Curtis explains for the American Bar Association, managing expectations is especially important with difficult clients. If you have clear, documented descriptions of what your clients can expect in terms of costs, time, service, and results, it will be easier to explain to them why they need to find a different lawyer if they expect more of you than is possible.
2. Document, document, document:
Justice Curtis also underlines the importance of thoroughly documenting your interaction with difficult clients. This process is easier if you’re using software like Filevine, which automatically keeps a record of most client interactions, and provides an easy archive for additional notes after phone calls or meetings.
3. Stay calm:
When you’re terminating the relationship with a client, keep your emotions in check. This isn’t the time to find catharsis in finally speaking your mind to that [bleepity-bleep]. If you end the relationship with the explanation that you’re not the right fit for them, and suggest a replacement, they might even thank you for it.
4. Meet deadlines:
Be cognizant of the client’s deadlines through this process. If there’s a statute of limitations coming up, you probably shouldn’t drop the client until after you have filed suit. A general rule could be to not drop a client less than three months prior to the statute of limitations, so they have time to hire a new attorney. If your suit has been filed, give your client a clear list of all upcoming deadlines, and sufficient time to handle them.
For other considerations of appropriate conditions and methods for dropping a client before the resolution of their legal issue, be sure to review the Model Rules from the American Bar Association.
Once you’ve cleared out the toxic clients, you’ll find yourself with more energy to devote to the clients you want to be working with. You can build a reputation and brand directed toward your ideal clients, and lavish a little more work and personal attention on the clients you most enjoy working with. They will appreciate it, and recommend other good clients your way.