4 ways a solo attorney can recognize when the attorney/client relationship has eroded to the point of walking away from the client and case.
When I worked at a busy firm, my boss took on pretty much any client that was willing to pay her. Working as a matrimonial/family law attorney, most of our clients were in need of a lot of support and hand holding.
This being said, there were some people that we could tell were trouble the second they walked through the door: they were demanding, they had unrealistic expectations, and they spoke to us like they knew how to do our job better than we did. These were the types of people that made me dread going in to work, and as an associate, if my boss assigned a case to me, I did not have the option of turning it down.
As a solo attorney, you can decide which clients to represent.
One of the many advantages of owning your own practice is that you can choose which clients you are willing to work with, and which ones you are not.
I know a lot of new solo attorneys are worried about making a profit and feel they don’t have a choice about what clients they take on, but I implore every lawyer to rethink this position.
Having a client that does not respect you and has unrealistic expectations could get you into a lot of trouble. These are the clients that take the time to file grievances and sue for malpractice because they feel you didn’t work hard enough to get them what they wanted.
As I stated above, a lot of times the signs are evident during the consultation. I learned recently, though, that an attorney-client relationship that starts out well can go south, and it is important to recognize the signs of this happening so you can end the relationship before the case/client spirals out of control and you get yourself in to trouble.
The background story of why I decided to discontinue a client’s representation:
A few months ago, a woman hired me to take on her family Court custody/modification case. I proposed a course of action and the client agreed. Unfortunately, the client’s actions did not correspond with her verbal affirmation. At times, she insisted I take actions other than what we had previously discussed, which actions would not have achieved the result she desired.
In retrospect, it was around this time that the client seemed to lose faith in my counsel and my ability to do my job. I think she felt I should do more. All of a sudden she asked me for a copy of her entire file. I figured she was seeking to replace me, but I did not ask.
After asking for her file, opposing counsel made a motion adverse to her stated interests. Since I was still the attorney of record, I showed up to oppose the motion as scheduled. To my surprise, I was not the only legal counsel in the courthouse present to represent my clients’ interests. My client had hired a second attorney. Although the attorney had tons of opinions on what my case theory should sound like, it was clear she knew very little about procedure and had little to no experience working in New York City Family courts.
I should have attempted to drop the client as soon as the second “attorney” walked in.
The next court appearance was scheduled for two weeks later. My client informed me that although she wanted me to remain on the case, her “second attorney” would draft all papers related to the appearance and e-mail them directly to me for review. After repeated requests for a draft of the motion, it never arrived.
The day the motion was due, I went to Court with a client who trusted me and took my advice at face value, and I realized how absolutely insane this whole situation was. When I got out of Court, I decided I was taking this out of my client’s hands. I tallied her final bill, sent it to her and told her I was no longer requesting replenishment of the retainer, just satisfaction of the balance owed. I told her there had been a breakdown in our attorney-client relationship and went on to list the reasons, and told her I could no longer provide effective representation for her. She simply responded that she would have her father contact me to pay the balance (which he has yet to do) and that was it. The second it was settled it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of my shoulders.
My story is not unique. Solo attorneys are afraid to part ways with clients if it does not involve disputed monies.
This situation spiraled out of control very quickly and I could have gotten myself into a lot of trouble had it continued.
As attorneys, especially those that own our own practice, we want to do what we can to make our clients happy. There were so many things that happened that I should have questioned, or told my client that I could not work with her under these circumstances, but I didn’t.
Working at my old firm, I had plenty of experience asking for the Court to relieve us from a case when the client stopped paying, but absolutely zero experience with getting off a case solely because of a breakdown in relationship.
4 Reasons Why You Should Consider Letting a Client Go.
I always try to be honest and realistic with my clients. I don’t file motions in Court unless there’s a realistic expectation that they will be granted. My client was unhappy with my counsel to sit tight and let the forensic take place, and she found someone else to tell her what she wanted to hear. I have learned several big lessons here:
1. You are uneasy asking the client questions.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I should have asked her why she wanted a copy of her file. I had a feeling she was looking for a lawyer, but I figured if she was then I would get fired and that would be that, and there was nothing I could do. As your client’s attorney, you should be kept appraised of who your client is sharing information about your case with, and why. If you feel uneasy about this, you might want to re-think your representation.
2. You are pushed into something you are not comfortable with.
My client hired another attorney and basically blind-sided me with her at the Court appearance. I had no say in whether or not I work with this person, whether I agreed with her counsel or thought she would be an asset to the case. I should have put my foot down from the outset (obviously not at the Court appearance, but after) and told her that I was not comfortable with how this was presented to me, and I felt it indicated a problem with our attorney-client relationship.
3. If a client is questioning your actions surrounding the case, this is indicative of a breakdown in relationship.
There is a difference between asking questions to gather information and learn about your case and asking questions in an accusatory tone that insinuates your client thinks you did not do something you were supposed to do. If your client does not trust your decisions or insists you should file something frivolous, it is time to end the relationship before it spirals further out of control.
4. If your client is not cooperating with you, to their detriment, it is time to walk away.
It was clear to me that this attorney had no idea how to draft an effective cross-motion. I tried to point this out to my client time and time again, and pleaded to see a draft so I could basically rewrite it, but neither of them cooperated. I don’t know what the end result was, but I know that had I stayed involved, and the client did not achieve the desired result, I would have been blamed, even though it was a result of both of them failing to cooperate with me. A grievance or lawsuit could have been filed against me.
I hope this helps others recognize when it is time to let go of a client. It is a waste of time, energy and money to continue down a path like the one I described above. Our efforts are much better used towards clients that take our advice and trust in our counsel.
Do you want to avoid awful clients? Do you want to find new, better ones?
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Rachel Silberstein is the principal of The Law Office of Rachel S. Silberstein, a law firm solely dedicated to the practice of Matrimonial and Family Law. She regularly appears in Supreme Court and Family Court throughout the five boroughs.
Ms. Silberstein received her Juris Doctorate degree from Pace University School of Law in 2005, and graduated cum laude, in the top 15 percent of her class. She was a member of the Pace Law Review, during which time she focused her research and writing on family law topics. She is an active member of the Family Law Section of the New York State Bar Association. She is a client in Law Firm Suites downtown Manhattan shared law office.