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Practice Points with Mark Scruggs: It’s a New Year; Fire a Client!

by Mark Scruggs |

When an insured calls me to report a grievance or a claim, it is not unusual to hear the lawyer say, “I knew this was going to happen!” I take that comment to mean the attorney-client relationship had soured long ago. Still, the lawyer stayed in the representation until the dissatisfaction on both sides resulted in a grievance or malpractice claim.

When I was a young lawyer, my law firm’s senior partner commented, “the practice of law is not involuntary servitude!’ I am convinced that many lawyers think it is. Some lawyers keep representing a client until it is too late to withdraw from the representation. And long after the relationship has become unsatisfactory for both the lawyer and the client. It does not have to be this way. Here are five reasons why you should review your client files this New Year and fire at least one client.

  1. Because you can.

Remember, the practice of law is not involuntary servitude. Rule 1.16(b) of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct sets out nine situations in which a lawyer MAY withdraw from a representation. I’ll bet you can find at least one that applies to the client you want to fire. If you have appeared as counsel for the client in a court proceeding, you have to get the Court’s permission to withdraw. (See Rule 1.16(c) and Rule 16 of the General Rules of Practice for the Superior and District Courts.) So please do not wait until it is too late to move to withdraw. Couple your motion to withdraw with a motion to continue if there is an imminent hearing, trial, or other proceeding scheduled. Ask the Court to hear your motion to continue first. Otherwise, your client may find himself without a lawyer for a motion hearing or trial.

  1. Because you will be happier.

I’ll bet you have at least one client who:

  • Does not respect boundaries. He sends you text messages (why did you give him your cell phone number?) frequently and demands an immediate response.
  • She calls you all hours of the day and night wanting to talk about her case.
  • He complains about your bills, does not pay them promptly, or does not pay them at all.
  • She is discourteous with your staff.
  • He wants to tell you how to handle this case.

Wouldn’t you and your staff be happier without this client?

  1. Because you will be more profitable.

Even if a client is not paying you, you still have to diligently and competently represent them as long as you are their lawyer. Why spend time on a client’s matter that you are not getting paid for when you can spend that time on matters for which you are being paid? It may sound counterintuitive, but I’ll bet you will be more profitable after getting rid of a problematic client.

  1. Because you will be less likely to have a malpractice claim.

If you have a client who you do not enjoy working with and the client is behind on his bill, that’s the file you are most likely to neglect. You may miss a deadline or make another mistake that could generate a malpractice claim. Lower your risk of malpractice by having clients who you enjoy working with, who appreciate your efforts, and who timely pay your bills.

  1. Because you will be less likely to have a grievance filed against you with the State Bar.

Most lawyers that I know are more concerned about having a grievance filed against them than about having a malpractice claim asserted. After all, a malpractice claim is about money, whereas a grievance has implications for your law license and your ability to make a living. If you allow a toxic attorney-client relationship to fester, you increase the chances of getting a grievance. Better to terminate the attorney-client relationship before things get too much worse.

One of my friends who has been practicing law for many years told me the happiest day of his life was when he learned it was okay to fire a client. You can, and in some cases, you should. Your life and your practice will be better for it.

About the Author

Mark Scruggs

Mark Scruggs is senior claims counsel with Lawyers Mutual specializing in litigation, workers compensation and family law matters. You can reach Mark at 800.662.8843 or at mscruggs@lawyersmutualnc.com.

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