Thanks, but no thanks

The cheapskate. The no-show. The bully. The foot-dragger. Every lawyer has a list of problem clients that they've had to deal with, and they come in all shapes and categories. How can bad clients best be avoided - and how can they most effectively be gotten rid of once you have them?

That can be tricky for any lawyer, but especially for solos who are reluctant to turn away business. That means effectively dealing with headache clients can be key.

"We probably saw increased evidence of that during the recession," said Patrick R. Burns, first assistant director of the state Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility. "There was an uptick in complaints [about clients], and our gut feeling was that part of the reason was that lawyers were taking cases that they ordinarily might have turned away, or staying with cases because they needed the revenue."

Even during good economic times, though, it can be hard to spot a trouble client, but there are ways. Some clients send clear signals that they're probably more bother than they're worth during an initial consultation.

"One big warning sign is a person who come in quoting the law," said Minneapolis consumer rights lawyer Randall Ryder. "If someone comes in and starts telling me how the law works, there's a good chance I'm not going to take that client."

Another red flag, says Ryder, is when someone comes in and says something like, "I just want to get justice."

"Every one of those cases has turned out to be 'You're not getting me enough money,'" said Ryder. "Any time they say it's not about money, it's about money."

There are clients who refuse to take your advice, others who are only after an attack-dog attorney, and still others whose values simply don't mesh with yours.

"We had one client who was a good guy who always paid on time," recalled Aaron Hall, CEO and attorney at Thompson Hall Santi Cerny & Katkov in Minneapolis "But he questioned everything. It was exhausting to be second-guessed all the time. Everything took longer, and he was frustrated to be charged for that extra time. We just had to stop investing in that relationship.

"In the end, a lot of clients might be bad for you, but not for another attorney and vice-versa," said Hall.

Saying goodbye

So when you've had enough, how easy is it to shed a bothersome client?

"We do get questions like that," said Burns. "People aren't always sure if they have grounds to withdraw from representation."

Fortunately for Minnesota attorneys, withdrawing from representation is relatively simple, as long as it doesn't create a material adverse effect on the interests of the client, according to Burns. Rule 1.16 of the state's rules of professional conduct spells out specific examples of instances where it is and isn't OK to withdraw.

"There are broad grounds for withdrawing," said Burns. "In state court, you generally do not need permission from the court unless it's a criminal matter."

Also, section D of rule 1.16 requires the attorney to give adequate notice to a client, which can become tricky if the relationship has deteriorated as a hearing is approaching.

"The state is pretty liberal in letting attorneys withdraw, but the feds are mostly the opposite. They want to avoid pro se representation," said Burns. "I've seen cases where an attorney goes before a federal court and says the client hasn't paid him in two years, and they say, 'That's too bad, but we're not letting you off.'"

To avoid having to deal with the difficult client to begin with, Burns advises laying down ground rules right away so that attorney and client understand each other's expectations. Also, advises Hall, consider cutting ties as soon as it becomes apparent that it won't work to have the person as a client.

"The tension, pain and frustration just grows on both sides when you keep pushing something that clearly isn't working," he said.

Finally, if you're trying to get rid of a problem client, don't worry about them getting mad and try not to think too much about losing or - heaven forbid - refunding a fee.

"The few times I've done it, it's been absolutely worth it," said Ryder. "Dump it and move on. It's not so much the time, but the emotional energy you're spending on a problem client that ends up getting to you. It isn't worth it."

Published: Tue, Aug 04, 2015