Let your most awful clients go and bug someone else – they cost you far more than they’re worth.

Last week I got a call from a client I had not spoken to for some time. I’d done a small piece of work for the firm but it ended up in the long grass and my involvement ended.

I endeavoured to keep in touch anyhow, kept the firm on my mailing list and sent the odd missive to the senior partner, but just got radio silence. Then, out of the blue, I had a call from them.

“I’m delighted to hear from you,” I said to the senior partner when I heard his voice. “I thought I’d done something to annoy you.”

Mark Brandon

“We just had a lot of things going on,” he replied, adding graciously, “I need to apologise for ignoring you.”

Our relationship thus bounced back to its previous place as he took me through an interesting project he has in mind.

As I was relating this story to a friend he told me a similar tale of his, and a neat little aphorism popped into my head: the right ones remember.

To expand on that, the interactions you have with clients you like, for whom you will go the extra mile and who are appreciative of that have a special power. They spark referrals and recommendations. They cause clients you thought lost to return years later to seek you out. The job satisfaction these clients engender itself justifies putting energy into your interactions with them.

Conversely, there are some clients you should just get rid of.

Since I started my business four and a half years ago I have stuck to one cardinal rule: I will never – never – act for people I don’t like. I can say, hand on heart, that I like all my clients and some I also count as friends.

When I was a recruiter the exigencies of that business forced me to represent people and firms I could not stand. Some firms I would even refuse to mention to candidates, a habit deemed “uncommercial” by my boss (and he was probably right).

Many lawyers have a client they find objectionable, yet they continue to act for them anyway.

Part of this is obviously the notion of everyone deserving legal representation, no matter how awful they are, but more often it is simply because lawyers are frightened to lose the revenue clients provide.

When I ran this past a partner friend of mine he laughed and accused me of naivety.

“Everyone has clients they don’t like,” he said.

My response was simply, “Why?”

Putting the firm first

Imagine my delight recently, then, to hear the chairman of one of my clients relate how he had sacked one of the firm’s top 100 clients after a catalogue of nonsense (and lost one of the client partners in the process). He had put the needs of the firm ahead of the needs of one partner and got rid of a client who was damaging the firm, despite the short-term hit.

One can extend the thesis a little: your toleration of bad behaviour on the part of clients is helping to keep them in business. If everyone denied service to some of the appalling people who claim to be ‘businessmen’ they would change or go out of business.

Leaving aside the charge of moral cowardice (or indifference) inherent in not jettisoning terrible clients, I wonder if the true costs of keeping some clients happy are routinely calculated.

There is more often than not a direct cost, because painful clients are almost always the ones who want to nickel-and-dime you on fees. The secondary cost is most often felt by your people, usually the more junior ones, who have to face dealing with a painful client or work extra hard to make up for the fact you’re letting someone screw your rates into the floor. Ultimately they may leave and you’ll spend time and money replacing them.

Further, continuing to act for these people not only soaks up time you could be spending acting for people you like, but also prevents them from gumming up the wheels of your competitors who might otherwise be acting for them, often at sub-par profitability.

Everywhere in the legal profession, on both sides of the fence, this is going on every hour of every day. Lawyers are putting up with painful clients and clients are putting up with lawyers they don’t like either.

Time to stop. Be honest with yourself and confront your fears. Time you spend on a painful client could be more profitably – either monetarily or for your own sanity, comfort and peace of mind – spent finding and working on others more suited to you. Not only that, but you’ll be doing the world a favour.

Let the right ones in. Because the right ones remember.

Mark Brandon is managing director of Motive Legal Consulting