Dismiss Abusive Clients

  • October 23, 2014
  • Jay Foonberg

What do you do with clients who put your competence in doubt, who lie, who don't pay their bills or who demand the impossible.

Jay Foonberg, founder of the American Bar Association's law practice management section, puts it bluntly, "Get rid of the non-cooperative or overly demanding clients", he says. In Thirty Tips for a Happier, Better Practice, Foonberg states "You could probably lose 10% of your clients and at the same time get rid of 90% of your aggravation while only losing 2% of your fees".

Former head of the Montreal Bar and 30-year civil and commercial litigation lawyer, Pierre Fournier, of the firm Fournier Associés, divides the clients you should dismiss into three categories: those who lack confidence in their lawyer, those who don't pay their fees and those who lie (to their lawyer or to the court). Clients who lie in court cause the worst problems for lawyers, since the lawyer often knows the truth but cannot breach the client's confidence, he says. In this case, the lawyer has no choice but to claim "irreconcilable differences" and ask the court permission to no longer represent the client.

John Jones, associate with Selby & Jones in Winnipeg, describes the lawyer-client relationship as based on mutual confidence. Once that confidence has been shaken, the die is cast. Recently, Jones found himself in hot water with a client over a late document. "No response could satisfy this person anymore," he says. "The delay of one document was transformed into a question of integrity and confidence." Jones proposed that they end the relationship and asked the client, who proceeded to complain about his fees, to set a price that he would accept.

To avoid these situations, Selby & Jones now ensures that there is a detailed description and understanding of the expected fees at the start of a relationship with a new client. This reflects the recommendations of the Quebec Bar professional inspection committee, which has stated that a fee agreement can serve to establish a solid professional relationship between the lawyer and client.

Law schools don't teach how to handle abusive clients. Perhaps it's up to the lawyers themselves. "A lawyer must have a profound respect for the value of the service he provides," says Jones. "He succeeds only when he establishes recognition with clients, convinces them that his services have a great value and that clients must show respect."