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Sometimes, things just don’t work out. That’s an immutable law of romance and, as most lawyers find out at some point in their careers, also of attorney-client relationships. For any number of reasons—many of which don’t call for blame on either side—they break down and make moving on the best course of action for both attorney and client.
Maybe your communication styles don’t mesh. Maybe the client needs more handholding than you’re prepared to give. Maybe one takes an aggressive approach to litigation that makes the other uncomfortable.
Whatever the reason, sometimes a lawyer will know that it’s best for a client relationship to end. They should act on that instinct. But they should also be careful in how they do so.
Concluding client relationships can be a difficult process to navigate, sometimes with a lot on the line emotionally, financially and legally. But even where the relationship has been of short duration, and even where clients have caused great frustration (by not paying their bills, say), the lawyer should have a respectful process in place for “de-boarding.” That will protect the lawyer’s reputation, while keeping the door open to future business or referrals.
Because every attorney goes through this at some point, we’ve put together four best practices on ending client relationships.
The first step in the process is a frank discussion, preferably in person, in which the lawyer clearly states the reasoning for discontinuing the relationship. The lawyer should have the reason prepared and, if it involves a violation of the terms of the engagement, be ready to show the client those terms.
Lawyers are best served by approaching these conversations in an open, honest and non-accusatory manner. In this conversation, they should also outline next steps for both parties, including what they will do to assure a smooth transition to new representation.
The conversation serves as an ideal outline for the next step: a letter. It doesn’t have to be long, but this communication will serve as a record of the intent and reasoning behind the decision. Most of all, it is one of the best safeguards against future malpractice claims.
The letter should clearly state that the relationship with the client is concluded and that you will no longer be taking any actions on their behalf. It should also lay out the specific reasoning behind why the relationship is over, as discussed in the conversation. Finally, it should lay out the firm’s procedures for handling documents and other materials that have been retained for the client.
As easy as it would be to shred all client-related documents and be done with it, resist the temptation. First and foremost, offer to return documents to the client. Should the client oblige, this is the easiest way to relieve yourself of the burden of a client file.
If that’s not an option, take a look at your state’s bar rules. Typically, firms are required to keep documents for five to ten years after the relationship concludes, and then they may be destroyed. Keeping them for the longer end of that term is recommended. A good archiving service can be very helpful here.
The exception is for intrinsically valuable documents. Those must be delivered, sometimes by hand, to a client. Should the client be missing, the documents must be guarded securely until the client is located.
One of the easiest ways to find yourself in a malpractice suit or sour your reputation in the community (which might be worse) is to upset a client further by being rude and unaccommodating. At the end of the day, you are the one leaving the relationship—you need to facilitate as much as possible.
Be helpful, prompt and attentive. When putting together documents, make sure they are well organized, and always communicate that you would be happy to have a discussion with and help onboard the next lawyer or firm to take on the case. This helps to assure them that there can be a smooth transition even after a not-so-smooth discontinuation.
Everyone hopes that they will never have to fire a client, just like everyone hopes that they never experience a romantic breakup. In reality, sometimes its necessary to part ways—and it’s something that every lawyer should know how to do. By following the steps above, the process can be less painful for everyone involved.
Justice is blind.You don't have to be.
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