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Know When to Fold ‘Em

“Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away.”
(Lyrics by Kenny Rogers)

We are not all meant to work together. There, I’ve said it. Some of us just work more productively together than others. Anyone in the professional services field for any reasonable length of time, can attest to a client relationship that just didn’t work. There are a myriad of reasons: You were on a different wave length, didn’t communicate well, didn’t understand each other, couldn’t work efficiently, or had different expectations of each of other … and so on.

There comes a time – at least it has for me in the past – where you think to yourself, “why is this work so difficult to advance?” When your normal pace of work flow changes, it begs the question: “what’s going here?” You examine your own approach, behaviour, responsiveness and quality of work, and just hope the other side is doing the same.

You probably give it another go and hope that things change. When they don’t, you find yourself either writing off billable time or tentatively sending a bill that doesn’t reflect the value you normally bring to an engagement. And, it’s not for a lack of trying, but that square peg still isn’t fitting into the round hole and a better fit must be sought.

When you make the decision to help a client find another lawyer, it’s often a relief. But, doing so sensitively is obviously important to preserving the dignity of your client. Here are some tips:

  • Be open and honest and let the client know that you need to make a change;
  • Let him/her know that you feel you’re not bringing enough value to the engagement/not working efficiently together/need to find someone more suitable for their needs;
  • Share that you don’t want to bill for time that’s not directly advancing the file;
  • Indicate that you want to help – and will help – with a smooth file transition;
  • Reassure the client that their issue is worthy of finding the right lawyer to help; and
  • If you can, provide some names (first) in your firm or other firms who are likely suitable.

Hopefully, in time, you’ll spot these clients early. In recently socializing with an investment adviser, I discovered that she has perfected the art of evaluating compatibility at the initial client intake meeting. She asks the right questions, learns about the client history, probes for expectations and with the result, decides who is best to work with this client. She does so smoothly and inefficiently – “I know exactly who is best qualified to help you. Let me see if I can make that introduction right now …” — the client is none the wiser, and everyone carries on happily.

Imagine all the time you’ve spent trying to make a poor fit work well. Wouldn’t you go back and make a change earlier if you could?

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