At the beginning of any relationship, hope springs eternal, and the possibilities seem endless. There appears to be nothing that could get in the way of a perfect pairing. But for many people, that’s not how real-life works. Putting aside that over 50% of marriages end in divorce, and the rates are even higher for re-marriages, what hope is there for the “other” family law relationship – the one between a client and their family law lawyer? There are many explanations as to why the relationship falls apart, and some are not that dissimilar from those faced by couples in a romantic partnership. In this blog, I will discuss the common reasons that break apart this seemingly happy union and suggest ways (for both the lawyer and the client) to avoid becoming another statistic.
From a client’s point of view, there are three main reasons why they seek to fire their lawyer:
1. Lack of Communication
3. Loss of Confidence
The foundation of any successful relationship is communication. Almost every change in lawyer scenario has, as its basis, an element of the client being frustrated with the lawyer’s inability to returns a call, respond to an email, or answer a text. It is highly recommended that a client get a retainer letter (or a retainer agreement) at the beginning of the case. It should set out a) what the client can expect from the lawyer, and b) what the lawyer can expect from the client. It should also set out the turnaround time that a lawyer will respond to a text, email, or phone call. We live in a very “impulsive” society. Although a client will want/expect a quick reply, if they know there are time frames and limitations, this will go a long way to creating manageable expectations. Generally, one business day is the norm. Still, if the lawyer is going to be out of the office for court, for vacation, or personal reasons, an automated message or a support staff should alert the client to the same. And if a lawyer does not work evenings, weekends, and holidays, let the client know up front that you are not “on-call, 24/7,” even if technology allows you to be.
Next, like any consumer of a product or service, a client needs to have a fair understanding of what the case may cost them. If your lawyer is charging a block fee/flat rate, a client should get that in writing at the start. But if the client is being charged an hourly rate, then they should get a written estimate of what the case may cost them. This should be in the lawyer’s retainer letter. As a tip, I provide my clients with an “anticipated cost sheet” that will set out the average cost of a case, depending upon when it resolves and other factors. No one wants to get an interim or final bill for many more thousands of dollars than what the expected to pay. It is a sure-fire way for a client to dismiss a lawyer, let alone for the lawyer to likely never get paid.
Finally, like some relationships, the lawyer-client arrangement can get stale and falter. A client who was assured that a case would be resolved in 3 to 4 months will get upset after a year of being in court and having paid multiple legal bills. If the client wanted a “pit bull” for a lawyer but got someone who is not comfortable in a courtroom, then they will feel mislead. Sometimes, what the client wanted at the beginning of the case is not what they wish to later on. They may demand “results,” and if they do not get it, they will blame the lawyer. I know I am repeating myself, but much of this can be addressed in the retainer letter, but also with regular communication between the client and the lawyer. A simple call or email can go a long way. Lawyers are adaptable and can adjust their styles as needed. If a matter is going to take longer because it is the court’s fault or the other side’s fault, they should tell you that. But do not expect the lawyer to work miracles. Be informed, understanding, and realistic of what your lawyer can and cannot do for you.
From the lawyer’s point of view, there are three main reasons why they fire their clients:
1. Lack of instructions
2. Loss of confidence
3. Failure to pay account
A lawyer’s services are built upon a two-part foundation: the first part is the lawyer’s time, advice, and recommended course of action; the second part is the client’s instructions based on the advice received. Many times, the client is motivated at the beginning of a case. Still, after several months of inactivity, lawyers sometimes find it challenging to move the case in the direction it needs to go. This is often due to the client being unwilling or unable to give the lawyer instructions. Sometimes, after a quick and urgent motion in court, the lawyer finds out that the parties got back together and so the client is no longer as interested in pursuing the matter. Other times, the client changes phones or moves, and they forget to tell the lawyer their new phone number or address. Not infrequently, the client either becomes disillusioned with the legal process, the back-and-forth fighting, or with the emotional toll of the litigation, that they give up and fail to return the lawyer’s calls or emails. A good lawyer will set out for the client in their retainer letter what will happen in such circumstances.
Once again, a lawyer can also lose confidence in the client and end the relationship. If the lawyer determines that the client is not telling them the truth about the case, if the client is taking a harder or softer stand than the case merits, if they are continually changing their instructions, or they are asking the lawyer to do something improper or unethical, then the lawyer has lost confidence in the client and will remove themselves from the case. If the lawyer feels that they have lost the client’s confidence, such as hearing the ever-popular phrase, “you do not seem to have my best interests in mind,” then the lawyer will seek to end the relationship. Be aware that if a client is harassing, annoying, or even threatening the lawyer, or their office/support staff, the relationship will come to an immediate end. Clients must understand that we will not be emotionally invested in the case; instead, we will act in a dispassionate yet zealous manner in advocating for the client. As I have said throughout this blog, communication of this approach is key.
Finally, if a client fails to pay for our time and services, this will lead to the end of the relationship. The lawyer is a business professional who earns a living representing clients in and out of court. We do not do this as a hobby. We must be paid for our time, advice, and our services, regardless of the result in court. If a client does not accept and value this truth, then it is an essential breach in the relationship. It cannot go on. If you are retained through legal aid or some other payment plan, then this may be less critical.
But nonetheless, the client needs to be made aware, again and again, that if you do not get paid, you will not perform your services. One does not expect a car to drive itself if there is no gas, electricity other means to put it in motion. As well, practically speaking, I will quote a legendary local lawyer who once told me (many years ago) what he told all of his clients: “Although I am an excellent lawyer, my concentration is somewhat limited, and so I can only focus on one of two things – your case, or getting paid on your case, but not both.”