My experience in private practice – and from my conversations with other sole practitioners in smaller markets, it was a common one – was that it was, at times, a roller-coaster. Billings were often feast or famine. To compensate, lawyers can develop a thick skin when it comes to dealing with difficult clients. Our tolerance level went up just for the sake of regular billings.
Another experience that I occasionally enjoyed – and again, from my conversations with other sole practitioners in smaller markets, it was a not uncommon one – was that it was good to terminate the relationship when the client was more trouble than he or she was (or could ever be) worth.
Understand, this should not at all be related to the potential monetary value of either the client or the client’s file. This should be a purely sanity-driven exercise. Case in point, I had a client who was a successful entrepreneur. A totally self-made individual: driven, accomplished and, often, a complete bully. The client would think nothing of berating anyone who was perceived as having slighted him or impeded his wishes in any way. This had included a number of other lawyers in town, which was why the client eventually would up knocking on my door.
Now, I’m no psychologist, and many lawyers have no lessons to take on narcissism, but there comes a time when one can only take so much. Having served as the occasional spear in the client’s arsenal, I was familiar with his tactics. Suffice to say that, after a few years, the repeated nature of the client’s demands and overall approach were beginning to grate.
I was faced with a dilemma. The client had a very successful business. I was an indirect beneficiary of his business’ growth, having been involved in many of its transactions and associated work over the previous few years. The client represented an attractive portion of my annual billings. However, contrary to the usual 80/20 rule (where 80% of one’s problems are caused by 20% of one’s clients), this client exceeded the usual expectations and had become more of a 95/5 rule.
In An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope wrote that “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” This client was the personification of Pope’s comment. As an example: the client thought himself a skilled author of the traditional demand letter. This was, to be charitable, not exactly the reality. In the client’s opinion, if he drafted the letter and I “simply put it on my letterhead”, then he would save money.
No amount of explanation as to the nature of professional reputation or legal technicalities could persuade the client that this was an inappropriate way in which to proceed. In the end, I would usually take the gist of the client’s suggestions, correct the grammar and spelling, reword it so that it was at least moderately polite, and then issue the letter in question.
This was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It was getting to the point where the client’s practices and reputation were beginning to, in my own view anyway, have an effect on my own professional reputation. I was getting more mindful of an adage that a Provincial Court Judge had expressed to my Bar Admission Course in Alberta years ago: “Your reputation is like your virginity. Once it’s lost, it’s very difficult to get it back.”
I had a choice to make. I could either continue to serve as the client’s sword and shield (more often the latter), or I could swallow the bitter pill of losing the billings and move on. I chose to swallow.
The client made a feeble attempt to convince me to continue representing him (borne more, I think, out of a sense of hubris: of having been “fired” and not having done the “firing”), but he moved on to the next lawyer without much delay.
It was liberating. Far from being a case of losing a valuable client, it was an experience akin to taking a spectacularly-deserved vacation and returning more refreshed than ever imaginable. It was refreshing to speak to clients and not have a looming sense of dread. Yes, the phone was unusually quiet for a little while, but not for long. I was enjoying my practice again.
So, the moral of the story? Don’t be afraid to occasionally trim down the client list and cut out the clients that are far more trouble than they will ever be worth. There are a lot of lawyers out there, yes. But there will always be more clients than lawyers. You can afford to be choosy. More to the point: you can’t afford not to be.