How to Treat Bad Clients

When you saw this post title, how did you react? Was your first thought: “Kick ’em to the curb” or “I wonder where this is going?” If it was the former, don’t feel bad – it’s my knee-jerk reaction too.

When we hear the words “bad client,” we instinctively cringe. It conjures up past experiences we would rather not relive. Frankly, nothing could be more unpleasant. So what should we do?

Remedies for bad clients

Want to weed out or eliminate bad clients? Nothing beats:

  1. Screening at intake;
  2. Controlling expectations; and
  3. Knowing when to say no.

Trouble is, most of us know these lessons.  So …

What if a bad client squeezes by?

If there is an irremediable breakdown in the lawyer-client relationship and withdrawal is viable, do it. At this stage, it isn’t going to get better. Yet, some lawyers refuse to do so.

Why would anyone hold on to a client who belittled and berated them? Denied that telephone conversations or email exchanges occurred? Refused to produce materials requested in discovery? Insisted the lawyer use unethical or illegal tactics? (All actual events that have happened to lawyers I know.)

Money is generally the explanation. The lawyer can’t afford to forego the fee (or jeopardize her job). There are other reasons too, like fear and intimidation.

I hope you never experience any of this. If you do, I hope you are strong enough to get out. If you want to talk it over with someone, consider calling one of the confidential attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP).

Is there another approach?

I was motivated to revisit this topic by blogger Celia Elwell. In a recent post, she took on lawyers and legal staff who retaliate against ill-tempered clients by putting the client’s work at the bottom of the stack. Since I’ve witnessed this too, I wanted to share this point made by Ms. Elwell:

Most people, as a rule, do not call an attorney’s office because they are having a good day. Before they became our clients, they realized they had a problem, tried to deal with it, were unsuccessful, stressed, and lost sleep. In short, we are not seeing them at their best.

Take good notes when your clients vent, rant, or repeat themselves. Because they are upset, they may be mistaken or confused. Let the client know that you are listening to them. Interrupt only when you need them to repeat something to make sure you get it right. Document the clients’ concerns, and tell your attorney they called and why.

While her remarks are directed toward staff, they are good reminders for us all.

If you didn’t spot it, notice I suggested above that withdrawal made sense if (a) it was viable and (b) there was an irremediable breakdown in the lawyer-client relationship.

What if you aren’t there yet? This is when Ms. Elwell’s advice comes in handy.

Do not under any circumstances intentionally retaliate by putting the client’s work at the bottom of the stack. At the least, it is unprofessional. It will also likely result in a bar complaint and/or legal malpractice claim. Instead, take the high ground:

  • Try to diagnose what went wrong. Is the client mad at you or someone else? Is the client mistaken or confused? Is this about money? How stressed is the client? Consider scheduling an in-person meeting to air out client concerns.
  • Go out of your way to be courteous and considerate. Instruct staff to do the same.
  • Do high quality work in a timely manner.

It’s easy to be resentful and decide that we’re going to give what we get. But if you go out of your way to appease the upset client, you remove all rational grounds for disputes, complaints, and claims. It’s better to remain professional, even if the “bad” client never appreciates it.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

Postscript

For more tips on improving client relationships, check out this CLE:
7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships.

 

Best Practices for Docketing, Conflicts, Disengagement, and File Retention

This is the last call for Best Practices for Docketing, Conflicts, Disengagement, and File Retention scheduled for April 11, 2018 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., PDT. This live, online webinar is the second in a two-part series on effective and ethical office systems.
Topics include:

Docketing

  • Learning the attributes of effective docketing systems
  • Appreciating the duty of due diligence
  • Docketing tips for eCourt practitioners: knowing where to go, forwarding notices, calculating deadlines, understanding the Register of Actions, enlisting proper email management

Conflicts

  • Recognizing ethical traps
  • Establishing system objectives: who to screen and when to screen
  • Comparing software applications
  • Streamlining conflict checking using forms, checklists, procedures, and letters
  • Recording conflict results

Disengagement and file retention

  • Meeting your ethical obligations under Oregon RPC 1.16
  • Simplifying disengagement with forms
  • Protecting clients and limiting liability exposure
  • Creating policies, procedures, and checklists
  • Accessing resources

Register Now
$25 – Visit the Upcoming CLE page or choose the registration link below. Secure payment processing powered by Eventbrite. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express accepted. Program materials included in the registration price.

REGISTER NOW
Best Practices for Docketing, Conflicts, Disengagement, and File Retention

 FAQs

Are group discounts available?
Discounts are available to firms who register 5 or more attendees. Contact me for a discount code before you register beverly@oregonlawpracticemanagement.org.

Do the Programs Include Written Materials? 
Yes. Written materials are distributed electronically to attendees.

Are questions welcome?
Absolutely. Questions may be submitted any time during the live event or afterward via email. Attendees are also encouraged to participate in live, anonymous polling.

Where are the programs being held?
This program will be a live, online webinar.

MCLE Credits
1.0 practical skills pending.

Can’t Attend?
Video and audio recordings of the April 11 CLE will be available to download along with the program materials shortly after the live program event.
Price: $25. Contact me or visit my online CLE store to place an order.

Engagement Letters Are Your Friend

Today, I’d like to share a recent post from our friends at NW Sidebar about the importance of engagement letters.

In Cox v. Alliant Insurance Services, Inc., 2017 WL 4640452 (E.D. Wash. Sept. 19, 2017) (unpublished), the plaintiffs sought to disqualify the opposing law firm based on a conflict of interest. One of the plaintiffs argued that he was a former client of the firm on a substantially related matter, necessitating the law firm’s withdrawal.

The plaintiff’s contact with the firm was as a representative for a corporation.  In concluding that no attorney-client relationship existed between the plaintiff and the law firm, the court relied on two key points:

  • The law firm and corporation executed a written engagement agreement that identified the corporation (and not the individual) as the client in the matter.
  • The plaintiff failed to introduce contradictory evidence, i.e., he could not point to any communication or action by the firm which expanded the attorney-client relationship to include him individually as a client.

Read the full post here.

Lessons Learned

As we discussed in the CLE, Limiting Exposure to Conflicts, identifying your client and clarifying the client’s status (prospect, current client, or former client) is paramount to conflict screening and limiting your potential liability. The single best tool at your disposal? Written engagement, disengagement, and nonengagement letters – all of which are available at the Professional Liability Fund website.

But the law firm in Cox didn’t stop at the engagement letter. Firm members were also consistent in their actions toward the corporate representative. There was no evidence of emails, correspondence, or other communication supporting that the corporate representative was an individual client of the firm.

The moral of the story? A solid engagement letter is a small investment to make in the realm of thwarting conflicts and liability. Even better: maintaining consistency in your corporate communications.

All Rights Reserved 2018 – Beverly Michaelis

 

 

Lawyer Transitions: Departing Your Firm

The days of spending an entire career at one firm are long gone.  By the end of three years, nearly half of all associates leave.  Partners bail out for many reasons – compensation, lifestyle choice, and conflicts with other partners – to name a few.

No matter who you are, tread lightly when you leave.  Departing lawyers have ethical, contractual, and legal responsibilities.

If you are a partner

Conduct your partnership withdrawal in a manner that honors the contractual and fiduciary responsibilities owed to your fellow partners.  Contractual duties are controlled by your written partnership agreement.  Fiduciary duties are described in case law and codified by statute in Oregon’s Revised Partnership Act.

If you are not a partner

Review your employment contract, employment letter, office policies, office procedures, or any other applicable terms that may control the process for terminating your relationship with your current firm or your obligations upon departure.

Are issues likely to arise?

Consult outside counsel experienced in the areas of lawyer mobility, partnerships, fiduciary duties, lawyer separation, and law firm dissolution.

Give notice before you contact clients

Inform the firm of your decision to leave before contacting any clients.  Failing to give adequate and timely notice to your firm or partners before you contact clients is a violation of the duty of loyalty owed by a lawyer to his or her firm based on their contractual or agency relationship.  It may also constitute conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation in violation of Oregon RPC 8.4(a)(3).

Although there is no explicit rule requiring lawyers to be candid and fair with their partners or employers, such an obligation is implicit in the prohibition…against dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Moreover, such conduct is a violation of the duty of loyalty owed by a lawyer to his or her firm based on their contractual or agency relationship.” In re Complaint as to the Conduct of Murdock, 328 OR 18, 25 (1998), citing, In re Smith, 315 Or 260, 266 (1992). See also OSB Formal Op No 2005-70; ABA Formal Op No 99-414.

Assessing your client caseload

Undoubtedly there are clients you would like to take with you, but there may also be clients you prefer to leave behind.  Draft a client notification letter informing clients of your departure.  Schedule a meeting with your supervising partner or other appropriate member(s) of the firm.  Bring a printout of your current cases and your draft client letter.  This meeting must occur before you contact any clients.  [Note: more than one notification letter will be necessary if you intend to keep some clients and leave others behind.]

For clients transitioning to your new firm

Make arrangements to obtain trust funds, copy paper and digital records, and sign new fee agreements.  Checklists documenting the steps to take when leaving a firm are available from the OSB Professional Liability Fund.

For clients you are leaving behind

Properly document client files by preparing memos describing the status of each case and any upcoming deadlines.  If you are attorney of record, withdraw or confirm that a substitution of counsel has been filed where necessary.  Otherwise, you remain on the hook.  Check out the resources available from the OSB Professional Liability Fund describing a lawyer’s duties upon withdrawal and termination of representation.  If in doubt, contact the OSB General Counsel’s office or consult with outside counsel.

Transition don’ts

  • Misleading clients about their right to choose counsel
  • Contacting clients before speaking to your firm about your departure
  • Taking client files without the knowledge or consent of the firm
  • Taking client money without the knowledge or consent of the firm
  • Taking firm property, including forms, research, or other materials, without the consent of the firm

Transition Dos

  • Put clients first.  Whether you are making a lateral move to another firm or setting up your own practice, remember that the client’s freedom of choice in selection of counsel is paramount.
  • Keep the transition as amicable, professional, and stress-free as possible. Contentious withdrawals alienate clients and damage relationships.
  • Remember to take a list of clients with you so you can screen for conflicts at your new firm.

Handled properly, your departure should be smooth and uneventful.

 

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis

 

Last Call: Ethical Guidelines for Client Files – June 7, 2017 CLE

Don’t miss “Ethical Guidelines for Client Files” on June 7, 2017.  Learn about OSB Formal Ethics Opinions 2016-191 – Client Property: Electronic-Only or “Paperless” Client Documents and 2017-192 – Client Property: Duplication Charges for Client Files, Production or Withholding of Client Files.

What are lawyers required to produce and when?

  • In some cases, lawyer notes and communications must be produced, in other instances they can be withheld: do you know the difference?
  • If you store data in proprietary law office software (e.g. in a docketing or practice management program), must you extract and convert the data for the client?
  • What circumstance might provoke disclosure of “confidential” information belonging to another client?
  • Can you refuse to deliver file material on the grounds that it is too burdensome or expensive to produce?
  • Is it possible to deliver less than the “entire client file” if the client consents?
  • Are you required to produce work product? Conflict information? Time and expense records? Reports about the client’s creditworthiness? Expert witness information? Metadata? Text messages?

Standards governing retention and storage of client files – Is it ethical to store client files electronically? Do any exceptions apply? What duties does a lawyer have when using electronic-only storage?

When to charge for locating, segregating, or duplicating file material – When you can (and can’t) pass costs on to the client, whether client originals can ever be destroyed, and your ethical responsibilities to the “impecunious client.”

Appreciate the difference between ethical duties and discoverability – The interplay of the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct vs. state and federal rules of civil procedure.

Throughout the program “best practice” tips will be shared.

Date/Time/Location

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time.  This is a live, online webinar. Watch from your desktop computer or mobile device. Connect to audio via telephone or computer/device speakers.

Who Should Attend?

Lawyers, office managers or administrators, staff – anyone interested in learning more about Oregon’s new formal ethics opinions, 2016-191 and 2017-192.

Does the Program Include Written Materials?

Yes.  Written materials will be distributed electronically to all registered attendees before the event.

Ask Questions/Participate in Live Polling

Questions are welcome during the live event.  Attendees are also encouraged to participate in live, anonymous polling.

Registration Fee

$25 – Visit the Upcoming CLE page or click here, or choose the Register button below. Secure payment processing powered by Eventbrite. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express accepted. Program materials included in the registration price.

Eventbrite - Ethical Guidelines for Client Files

MCLE Credits
1.5 Ethics MCLE Credits pending.

Can’t Attend?

Video and audio recordings of Ethical Guidelines for Client Files will be available to download along with the program materials following the June 7 CLE. Price: $25. Contact me or visit my online CLE store after June 7.

All Rights Reserved [2017] Beverly Michaelis