Breaking Up – A Client’s Perspective
Jokers to the right, here I am
Stuck in the middle with you
Thankfully law firm departures don’t resemble the action in Reservoir Dogs, the ridiculously violent (and terrific) movie from which that lyric was borrowed, but they’re not always smooth either. Especially when lawyers leave with the intent to carry on their existing practice elsewhere.
In the face of all the tricky separation issues, the client’s interests need to be at the forefront. While the idea of categorizing clients as “assets” in a “book of business” may be easy for most lawyers to intellectually compartmentalize, it can be a very uncomfortable and unsettling one from the client’s perspective.
Recently, I hired a firm of licensed professionals. Not a law firm, but educated, licensed professionals. I had no pre-existing relationship with either the firm or the professional to whom I was assigned. I’ll call the firm “Failco” and my contact professional “Shirley” (As in, surely you can’t be serious.)
Everything was going along fine with Shirley. Then I got a call one evening on my personal cell around 8:45pm, and things got weird.
The voice on the other end was from Fern Failco, the self-proclaimed caretaker of the “Failco” firm name. Her pace was quick and nervous, having the same “just get it over with” kind of speed that I’d use when, say, I needed to tell my Dad that I just airmailed a Mylec Street Hockey Ball through the garage door window. The call went something like this:
Her overuse (actually, misuse) of the word “professional” conveyed to me the same sincerity level as Antony’s “honorable man” praise of Brutus in Julius Caeser.
She offered no explanation, invited no questions, gave no options. She gave no insight at all on why this was urgent information – to me. I’d never even spoken with Fern before.
At that point, Fern’s nervousness turned ever-so-slightly into defensiveness, and she started leaning on me a bit. I was ready for her to jump right to the “your engagement is with US, and you’re OURS” within 10 minutes of speaking with me for the first time, but she had the sense to stop short of that.
I don’t ever think I felt more like a fungible line item on someone’s Excel spreadsheet than I did after I hung up with her; that is, until I spoke with Shirley the next day.
Much to Fern’s chagrin, the next morning I called Shirley. Not surprisingly, it sounded like the whole hoo-hah was over some business issue between Shirley and Fern that ultimately resulted in Shirley getting canned. Shirley claimed she had no idea this was going to happen, which didn’t seem very credible to me either. After giving me “her side” she encouraged me to write a letter to a State regulatory department “demanding that I be released to her” (her words), because – I kid you not – “that’s what my lawyer told me to tell you.” Lawyers now?! How comforting.
Having witnessed similar shenanigans as a young law firm associate, at least I wasn’t totally naive to what was actually happening. However, I couldn’t imagine how others would’ve felt in that situation, people who aren’t really that familiar with these kind of business disputes. I thought about my kid sister (a special ed teacher) getting that series of calls, or my folks.
In the end, Fern and Sally both failed, but the experience is a great example on how the client’s interests need to be paramount. In many cases, the client’s choice between sticking with a Firm or going with the departing professional is easy and clear, but that isn’t always true, and in those cases it’s especially important to be sensitive to the position the client is getting placed into.
Complying with ethical rules and formal requirements is obviously essential, but only a bare minimum. A client should never be pressured, thrown in the middle of a business dispute, or made to feel like part of a “book of business” – a fungible asset in a disputed portfolio.
Keeping the focus squarely on the client’s interests is the first step in ensuring a smooth and truly professional handling of a breakup.