My father had a rocky start to his career. There were many years at the outset of his working life when he did not make much money and struggled to pay his bills. When creditors would call, he would explain to them about the payment hat. He would tell them that once a month he turned his fedora upside down and put all of his monthly bills in the hat. He described how he would then mix the bills up and pull them out and pay them until the money ran out.
Finally, he would warn the creditors that if they kept calling him and annoying him, their invoices were not going into the hat.
My father was not the perfect client.
I had good and bad clients during my career. Here are some of the worst:
- Ron was the president and chief franchise salesperson for a client of mine. Ron was very busy. In the days before email, I would write him letters and send him accounts, but rarely receive answers, instructions, or payments. Eventually I learned that I had to drive to his office, open his mail, read it to him, ask questions and get my answers. Also, he would then send the invoices to his accounting department for payment.
- Aaron was the controller for a landlord client of mine. He called to whine about every bill that I sent him, and I kept reducing the fees. Eventually I started charging more for every bill and then negotiating the bills down to the amount that I originally wanted to charge. Still later, I told Aaron what I had been doing and explained that it would be simpler if I just charged the real amount and he paid it. Eventually I found out that Aaron was doing all of this on his own. The owners had no complaints about the bills.
- There was a man who I will call Sam who told me that he was mortally offended by my suggestion that he should provide me with a retainer. After all, Sam explained, he had been a chartered accountant for 30 years and could be trusted. Turned out in the end that Sam had actually been booted from the profession in another province. I never did get paid.
- Then there was a fellow who we called “the bad Geoff W” around the office to differentiate him from “the good Geoff W,” the latter being a great client with the exact same name. The bad Geoff W needed everything yesterday except for the satisfaction of paying his bills which could wait a long while. He was intimidating and demeaning to my staff, who hated him. (Sometime later I finally figured out that when clients mistreat staff, they should be fired no matter how much you are billing them.)
What truly set Geoff W apart from my other bad clients, is that he is the only client who ever sued me for negligence, although he dropped the suit when he realized that he was not going to win.
I learned about his intention to sue me while I was having lunch with him. It was a week before the expiration of a six-year limitation period for this claim. During that six-year period he had full knowledge of the potential claim, and he continued to use me for all of his legal matters.
At our lunch, though, he explained that business was bad and he needed the money. Then he asked if I would keep acting for him because he thought that I was a great lawyer. Seriously.
5. And I always remember Blaine. He was intelligent. So intelligent in fact, that he knew how share purchase transactions should be handled much better than I did. He disagreed with virtually every recommendation that I made and questioned every step that I took and every document that I prepared. I will give him credit for paying his bill in full, even if he did tell me that it was outrageous. (I was billing by the hour and it took a long time to revise everything for absolutely no reason except that Blaine wanted it done differently.)
6. Bill was a serial entrepreneur. Bill loved my work on the sale of his first business, especially the part where I worked nights and weekends to get the deal closed quickly because it was super-duper important to do that for some reason that Bill made up. Then Bill got the invoice, pronounced it outrageous and sent me a letter enclosing a cheque for payment in full and letting me know that he would never, ever, ever use me again.
I suppose I should have known better when Bill called me a few years later saying that he had another business to sell. All was forgiven. He needed me to do the deal. Of course, it was a rush. More evenings, more weekends. Another ridiculously quick closing. Once again Bill was very appreciative of everything that I had done to get the deal closed. I sent him my bill. He sent me another letter enclosing full payment and telling me that he would never, ever, ever use me again.
Thankfully, he kept his word that time.
7. There was also Richard, who technically was a referral source not a client. Richard was the type of advisor who really identified with his clients and would act as if he were the client instead of the advisor. Richard was providing instructions on behalf of one of his clients concerning a small business sale. I was off enjoying a fabulous vacation and I had left my star associate in charge.
Richard tried to brow beat her into skipping some steps in order to get the deal closed early enough on a Friday that he could get on the highway and up to his boat. He told my associate that “Murray would be very disappointed in her if he knew how she was holding things up.” My brilliant (and of course, well-trained) associate told him that Murray would be even more disappointed in her if she gave into that nonsense.
8. Lorne was an accountant who also identified with his clients and would act as if he were the client instead of the advisor. He was actually pretty smart (although not nearly as smart as he thought that he was), but he was a sole practitioner who should have had an entire squadron of junior accountants to clean up the messes that he created.
At one point I became aware that on behalf of our mutual client, he had reported several transactions on a tax- deferred basis over three years, but the minute books did not reflect any of them. I tried in vain to get a tax planning memo out of him for many months and eventually I had to go to his office and have him pull the filed tax returns and provide instructions as to what had been reported so that I could do the documents.
Unfortunately, there had been a few inconsistencies in what had been reported so that if we did what was reported in year one, the steps reported in years two and three did not work. We worked for hours re-imagining what really happened and looking for ethical ways to fix it up.
9. Of course, the prize-winner was a fellow who had been convicted of securities fraud in the past and who had convinced me that he had reformed and needed a second chance. I fell for it. His next crime was absconding with some trust money that one of my less brilliant associates mistakenly paid out to him. Never saw him again. Or the money.
Lessons for young lawyers: There are bad clients and bad referral sources out there. They may promise lots of business, but they are never worth the stress that they cause. Fire them. Use your energy to get better clients. Ignore this advice at your own peril. You will live to regret it. Guaranteed.