You’re fired: what to do when a client dis-instructs you

Being dis-instructed by a client is never easy. Rita Gupta explains the top six reasons why this happens and reveals what to do next.
A woman with dark hair has a tense conversation with another woman.
© Image: fizkes

Dis-instruction is not fun. As legal professionals, a client dis-instructing during a case hits us hard in our professional gut. It also makes us doubt our ability, integrity and capability.

It also often happens on a case that we have put our heart and soul into, and so feels particularly demoralising.

In 2024, dis-instruction is still part and parcel of what happens at any law firm. Thankfully, it happens very rarely at my firm, but it does occur.

I also suspect it may be happening more often in the current economic climate as legal fees become a challenge, law firms merge, and clients are passed from lawyer to lawyer. We’ll get into this more a little later.

Dis-instruction is not objective

It doesn’t matter what the client’s background, profession or qualifications may be. When you’re dealing with areas of law that impact someone’s life, their objectivity goes out the window.

As a result, all clients are vulnerable to making emotive and sometimes illogical decisions about who is best to represent their interests.

They may “fire” you in a moment of anger, high emotion, or just sheer frustration at the legal system in general.

Equally, the client may just want a different approach. Maybe the underlying reason is that they are looking for a “cheaper” option due to the cost-of-living squeeze.

Remember that the trigger to dis-instruct is very rarely your fault, and usually out of your direct control.

Top six reasons clients dis-instruct

1. The case is not going their way

If a case is not going the way the client envisioned, they may want to jump ship, in the hope that another firm will get better results (or perhaps a lower cost solution).

Often their expectations don’t match the possible outcomes you laid out and are unrealistic.

I always say that I don’t have a magic wand, but sadly some clients still expect that I should. Some clients want a second opinion, or just want to hedge their bets.

2. You’re not meeting their (excessive) demands

Clients can have very high expectations when paying privately for an intangible service. As family lawyers, we are a “disaster service” that no one ever expected or hoped to pay for.

Most clients are highly unlikely to have a “just in case” contingency fund for legal fees tucked away. What’s more, if clients are experiencing financial issues, then your legal fees may represent a significant part of their expenditure too.

As a result, clients may expect you to work on their case all day every day, answer every email immediately, and take their phone calls when you are in court.

Many UK solicitors would probably agree that they can’t cope with the sheer volumes of emails being received.

This is neither realistic nor practical, and fails to account for the lawyer’s wellbeing. If a client dis-instructs due to excessive service expectations, they are usually doing you a favour.

3. Pressure from the other party/parties in the case

Clients may feel pressured by family, friends, partners, and so-called social media “experts” to take a different approach or line of action than you recommend.

As legal professionals, we advise clients according to the law and their specific circumstances.

While we’re answerable to our clients, we are not instructed by their entire family and network, who are often confusing the issue or can put forward their own agenda.

4. Emotions are running high

Any legal action can be a stressful experience for clients.

When they are angry or frustrated, they are in a heightened emotional and negative state. So, they lash out verbally at the nearest person – and that could be you as their legal representative.

Some clients just need time to cool off, calm down, and regain their perspective. Delaying your reply a little can give them that much-needed breathing space.

5. They have run out of money

There may come a point where the client’s funds are running low.

They can blame your “high fees”, but their decision to proceed may be based on unrealistic expectations of a high value (and speedy) resolution of their case.

Similarly, they may have conducted their case inefficiently with excessive communications.

6. You are not their original lawyer

If you law firm merges with another, you may “inherit” an already disgruntled client through a merger of firms or departments.

As their new lawyer, you may be worried about your reputation in the firm if they promptly dis-instruct you. However, it is far more likely that the issues started a long time back in their case history.

Dis-instruction of a client that is new to you can be very demoralising, especially for less experienced lawyers, but again, it is highly unlikely to be your fault.

What can you do?

Engage early with dissatisfied clients

If you have a client who is dissatisfied, first engage them with your complaints procedure:

  • if you are their primary contact, respond quickly and take their complaint seriously

  • if they need to escalate their issue, refer them to your complaints partner within the firm

  • your complaints partner should carry out an investigation and provide a response within 10 business days

  • if the client is still not satisfied, then their complaint can be referred to the Legal Ombudsman

Look after your mental health

Being dis-instructed can affect both your personal and professional self-esteem. The important thing is to separate personality from process.

Your client may say you’re too slow, when you’re proceeding as fast as possible within the legal system timetable. This is even more unpredictable due to ongoing court delays and rising client expectations.

As a family law firm specializing in divorce, we are increasingly finding that clients’ expected response times are just not realistic. Every client feels their case is the most important, and as lawyers we have to prioritise.

A client may express dissatisfaction with how much they might be awarded financially, even though the amounts are set by law. This is not your fault. You don’t make the laws – you work within them.

You and your client may simply not get on very well. This happens. So long as you have been professional throughout, this is not your fault.

Get an objective overview

Be realistic about your own view of the situation. Talk to your manager, colleagues and directors to get an objective viewpoint.

Ask for help and support when you need it, and don’t sit and wait until the situation escalates into a full-blown serious complaint.

Above all, remain confident in your abilities and training, and the support of your firm and professional colleagues.

Don’t let the experience overwhelm you to such an extent that you cannot work on other cases.

Learn from your experience

If you have been dis-instructed, take time to consider why.

Could you have done anything better, made anything clearer, or sought help from a colleague earlier?

Make notes and discuss these with your manager or director, so you can make changes to process if required. We can all learn, whatever level we are at.

As the managing director of a boutique law firm, I am always looking to improve our firm’s processes. I look at things from the client’s perspective whilst observing the wellbeing of myself and my team.

Financial losses from dis-instructing clients

Losing a client in any business will inevitably cost the company money in terms of lost income.

However, you will regain valuable work time from not dealing daily with a dissatisfied client.

The financial impact is therefore often less than it might first appear, as your subsequent availability helps generate income from other clients.

A second chance?

The first time I had a client dis-instruct me, it felt like a kick in the teeth, as I had worked immensely hard on her case.

However, soon after seeking a “second opinion”, she apologised sincerely and asked me to take her matter on again.

Ordinarily, I would never entertain such a thought, save for the fact that she explained her reasons.

She apologised for “lashing out”. She was incredibly anxious about her children and had lost all perspective, and her family and friends were confusing her.

Given her sincerity, and the fact that she had a pending court hearing, I took on her matter again. This was a mistake, as soon after the same issues arose.

I personally feel that once the relationship has broken down, it is irretrievable. I also think living under the constant threat of a client dis-instructing you or complaining is something that lawyers should not be subjected to.

However, I cannot envisage this happening in any other case. Most of the time, clients will not tell you the real reason for their dis-instruction.

Rest assured that most of the time, it has nothing to do with you personally.

Take a deep breath and move on

If a client dis-instructs you, don’t let it drag you down.

Wish the client well if they choose to depart. Remain professional from start to finish – and move on.

There is always another client, another case, and another day in court.


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