Client Development

Breaking Up Is (Not) Hard to Do

Rob was one of my favourite clients. He had intellectually challenging work, treated my whole team respectfully, gave me reasonable deadlines, and promptly paid all of his bills without question.

Yet, there were lawyers in my firm who did not like working for Rob, who, being smart and creative, would frequently propose unusual business structures or litigation strategies and then insist that we convince him why they would not work.

Rob’s ideas were interesting to work on and he was willing to pay for the work required to approve or disapprove of them. However, some of my colleagues did not enjoy playing intellectual chess with someone who was at, or above, their intelligence level and was not simply going to accept their word when they told him, “that is not how it is done.”

At the other end of the spectrum, one of my least favourite clients was Brent, who was also smart, but not nearly as smart as he thought he was. He came to me with an ingrained distrust of lawyers, his own views about how things should be done, and no interest in hearing from me about why they should be done differently. He saw all of my recommendations as a waste of time and an attempt to run up his bill.

Brent did not need a lawyer to be a partner in his success. He wanted an order-taker who would do as they were told and get the deal closed. I handled one complex transaction for him. He paid the bill but told me that he would never use me again, which was fine with me. I am sure that somewhere there was a lawyer who would be happy to close deals for Brent and not ask too many questions. That lawyer was not me.

All of this is well and good. As they say, “different strokes for different folks.”

Early in my career, I bought into the following erroneous notions: (i) I had to accept all of the work that was offered to me, provided that it came with a decent retainer; (ii) the client was always right; and (iii) it was up to me to make every client relationship work.

After I had been at it a while, I realized that the old ’80-20 rule’ applies here. Twenty percent of your clients will cause you eighty percent of your aggravation.

If you can eliminate that twenty percent, you will be left with the health and energy to seek out the clients who you want to work with. Your life as a lawyer will be infinitely more satisfying when you work with clients who you respect, and who respect you.

I meet many young lawyers who are convinced that they have to accept whatever work is offered to them, “at least for now.” This can be a trap that is hard to escape, because they end up spending so much of their time dealing with people who suck up their energy and leave them questioning why they ever became a lawyer in the first place. Worse still, they are so busy dealing with those clients that they cannot find the time to seek out better clients.

I encourage all of you to realize your fantasies of firing your bad clients and reap the rewards of doing so.

4 replies on “Breaking Up Is (Not) Hard to Do”

Over lockdown I encountered a number of clients who were non-practising lawyers and who were convinced they could get out of many of their contractual obligations due to a novel interpretation of the doctrine of frustration. It was quite an experience.

Fair enough. I would perhaps say that clients in the above category fell into two groups.

i) The “Oh I saw this Commonwealth case and I thought it might be helpful, can we chat it through?” group, and

ii) The “Oh I saw this Commonwealth case which means we don’t need to pay rent, make it so please, thanks and by the way I’ve cc’d in my CEO and/or CFO” group.

The first group was generally quite nice and I enjoyed the discussions with them.

The second less so.

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