Great expectations: when to let clients go

Rita Gupta, director of Leiper Gupta Family Lawyers (LGFL Ltd) and accredited family law member, shares her advice for legal professionals on how to know when to let the client go.
Woman on phone

“You can please some people all of the time, you can please all people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” – John Lydgate

Not every client is the right client. High levels of stress plus significant delays and adjournments for court hearings have placed increasing pressure on lawyers from frustrated, demanding and impatient clients.

It can be surprisingly hard to let a client go, even a particularly demanding one.

However, you need to consider the commercial and mental health benefits of letting this type of client go, to reduce the impact on your legal team’s productivity and your own mental welfare.

Setting expectations

For some clients, you can never do enough.

Their expectations are unrealistic, and they come to your first meeting with preconceived notions of what they want. These notions are often shaped by online searches, or expectations set by friends or family.

You need to collaborate with clients to achieve the best outcome possible, so any preconceived notions need to be nipped in the bud early.

When new clients arrive with this mindset, I tell them:

“You don’t go to your doctor and tell them what is wrong with you, and you don’t tell your doctor which prescription to write for you. The same applies for legal advice.”

Can I work with this client?

I very much believe in meeting with prospective clients face-to-face or via video conferencing.

This first meeting is as much about finding out if the client is right for you, as vice versa.

You need to trust the client as much as the client trusts you and your advice.

Your client has the right to challenge you, but if they are persistently questioning your professional judgement, this is not acceptable.

The stress starts here

As a reputable lawyer in any area of law, you’ll be passionate about what you do, and want to deliver impeccable service.

However, the pandemic has been tough for lawyers, especially in areas such as family, crime and employment.

As a profession, we have carried on regardless with massively increased caseloads, and dealing with highly emotionally charged clients.

All this additional pressure and work overload from clients with unrealistic expectations can take a considerable toll on your emotional wellbeing and mental health.

None of us should underestimate the sheer volume of non-chargeable time, stress and (dare we say) distress that an overbearing client can create.

Client time vs quality time

It’s a paradox that as many of us now work remotely and use a variety of communication channels, clients see us as more accessible than when we were in an office.

Their expectations and concept of reasonable response times have shifted, and not for the better.

We all know that sinking feeling each time a certain client emails (yet again), then expects you to reply within 10 minutes and THEN follows up with a chasing email!

If you have such a client, you seriously need to consider whether the relationship is worth continuing with, or at the very least, resetting their expectations.

Don’t underestimate the negative impact on your own personal wellbeing too.

This single client could be consuming quality time that you could spend with your family, taking a lunch break, or finishing at a reasonable time.

The same applies to your legal team colleagues and any support staff who will probably have similar feelings. Remember, stress is passed down.

Commercial impact of clients

It often doesn’t make good business sense to keep working with a certain client:

  • the need to service their ‘urgent’ demands eats into the productivity of your firm
  • much of the extra work you do for them will be non-chargeable
  • they will inevitably question every invoice
  • they may pay late as well
  • time spent on them will significantly reduce your ability to serve your other clients

Compare these ‘hidden’ costs against the amount of revenue that would be lost by letting the client go. The difference can be surprisingly minimal.

Time to say goodbye

If you decide that a client relationship is not working out, you need to terminate the retainer.

Bear in mind:

  • you cannot make decisions to terminate your client relationship on any discriminatory basis. The SRA states that you need “good reason” for ending the contract between yourself and a client. This can include “a breakdown in trust and confidence” with an awkward or obstructive client
  • always consider a frank conversation with the client first, to draw some boundaries and try to re-establish your relationship. Regardless of a client’s behaviour, you represent a profession, and must ensure that you aren’t drawn into communications or conduct that aren’t becoming of a solicitor. Before making any decision or saying anything to the client, you should refer to the SRA Code of Conduct for Firms
  • you must give reasonable notice. What exactly constitutes “reasonable notice” will depend on the client’s case and the reason for ending the retainer (for example, breakdown of trust due to unreasonable demands or for non-payment of invoices)

Speaking out

I’m fortunate enough to co-own my practice, but for many junior lawyers, suggesting you need to let go of a client to your boss isn’t an easy thing to do.

You may feel this will be interpreted as weakness, lack of expertise or just being over-sensitive.

However, I would encourage you to talk openly with your department head and go through the incidents and issues.

Ask for their support, before matters spiral out of control and a complaint could be made.

As one door closes…

Letting a client go is always going to be a major decision, but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from it.

Act decisively, and that decision will free your time, your staff, and lift that heavy cloud of ‘email dread’ too!

It will also make you more circumspect of your next prospective client, and in time improve your client portfolio overall.

Most importantly, you’ll have more time to get your work/life balance back, and prioritise your own mental health and emotional wellbeing. That, ultimately, must come first.

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

How to: sack a client – Grania Langdon-Down offers a guide to ceasing to act and how to avoid any reputational damage

Nikki Alderson, former criminal barrister, writes about her decision to stop saying yes, start saying no

Check the SRA Code of Conduct for Firms

Read the decision in Richard Buxton (Solicitors) v Huw Llewelyn Paul Mills-Owens and the Law Society (Intervener) [2010] EWCA Civ 122

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