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When Good Law Firms Fire Bad Clients

Several years ago, I came close to simultaneously entering into solo practice and starting my own (non-legal related) business. While the two businesses were mostly unrelated, lessons learned in one often have applied to the other, and vice versa. After all, as most solo practitioners can attest, running a solo practice is about much more than lawyering; it’s about running a business, like any other. I’ve learned that an important part of nearly any business, including a law practice, is knowing when and how to say no to potential business that just isn’t a good fit.

In my “other” business (which sells consumer products), I’ve had no problem refunding and refusing business to the occasional rude or unreasonable customer. But, until recently, I’d never needed to fire a client in my law practice. When I did, the circumstances were quite different than the “rude customer scenario” I had experienced in my other business. Here my client wasn’t impolite (just the opposite) and, quite honestly, what they were seeking was a level of service that another law firm would probably be happy to provide. However, for a number of reasons, they weren’t a good fit for my practice.

In part, the biggest problems were that they felt they shouldn’t have to pay for significant elements of my work while the level of service and attention they required simultaneously exceeded what my practice was able to provide them. In other words, they didn’t want to pay and they required more of my attention than my other clients. It was a bad combination that had quickly become a significant source of stress and frustration. As a result, I reached a point where I dreaded receiving their emails and calls.

I realized that the time I was spending struggling with this one particular client was time I’d rather devote to clients that were a better fit for my practice. I completed the work we’d already agreed to in my retainer agreement and then politely informed them that I’d not be able to work with them on future projects.

Chances are that most practices have or will have a similar experience at some point in time. When facing these circumstances, it’s worth asking yourself if this one client is really worth the time, stress and resources you’re devoting to them. For me, cutting loose that one client almost instantly made me feel better. I was significantly less stressed and I was able to immediately get back to work on the projects I enjoyed most. In fact, my mental focus felt better. In the end, I have no doubt that my practice is better as a result.

If you’ve ever experienced a problem client, we’d love to hear about how you handled it in your comments. After all, your experiences may help another solo practitioner out down the road.

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