Professionals and their clients do not always see eye to eye. Whether there are disagreements over litigation strategy, conflicts in personality, or a client who refuses to pay, many professionals encounter a problem client at some time in their career. While professionals may be tempted to cut ties with these clients when the relationship turns sour, an ugly break-up can make matters worse and may invite a malpractice suit.
Professionals should consider several factors before deciding to end the relationship. Take the time to assess the particular situation, including the basis for wanting to terminate the relationship, the type of matter in which they are representing the client, and what stage in the proceedings they intend to make the decision. A professional is in a better position to end the relationship if the client is engaging in improper activity, as opposed to a personal reason, such as not paying bills. Likewise, all professionals should take into account the timing of the withdrawal and complexity of the matter, so that the client is not prejudiced and has sufficient opportunity to retain a new professional.
Second, when deciding to end the relationship, professionals should make sure not to disclose any sensitive or confidential information, including revealing that the client is not paying bills or engaging in improper activity. In order to stay consistent with their ethical obligations, attorneys for example should instead make a general averment that professional differences require withdrawal.
Of course professionals should take steps to make the withdraw as smooth as possible by helping to retain a replacement if appropriate, securing and transferring all files, and making itself available as a resource for the new professional if a need arises. To be clear, however, the professional must document the end of the relationship through a disengagement letter so there is no ambiguity as to when the professional relationship came to an end.
Whenever considering terminating a problem client, professionals should consider the broader repercussions to their reputation and the potential effect it may have on generating future business or relationships. In many cases, a professional may be best suited by trying to work out the conflict with the client before it reaches the point of a break-up. However, if termination is necessary, professionals who take the time to analyze and plan the disengagement can best ensure that they protect their clients’ interest, adhere to ethical obligations, and guard against malpractice liability.