« Fewer Law Firm Options for New Grads? Who'd Have Thought It? | Main | Rolling Admission Continues for Solo Practice University - Here's A Course Sample »

February 06, 2008

"You Ask....I Answer" - I Want to Fire A Pro Bono Client. What Say You?

Question: Thank you so much for your website. I hung out a shingle, scared to DEATH, and then I found you. You have helped me draw many deep breaths since I went solo as a brand new attorney, and I am so grateful for your help.

If you have any time to share some thoughts with me, I would appreciate it. I am struggling with my decision to fire a pro bono client. I’m sure I’m not the only new attorney/solo who takes on pro bono clients because I 1) have the time and 2) want to help. How do I fire a pro bono client who is resisting my best efforts at client control? I represent a domestic violence survivor pro bono and she’s disrespectful and hard to work with. I’ve gone from feeling really good about what I’ve been able to do for her to dreading her calls. I’ve finally grown a spine and started strongly defining (to her) what I can and cannot help her with, but I’m not getting anywhere. I’m starting to get resentful, and I know this makes me a less effective advocate for her. I know there are many low income DV victims in my community who need my help and who will not be as difficult. But I just plain feel guilty contemplating firing this client because I know she has a very small chance of replacing me, and opposing counsel will take full advantage of her pro se status. I also fully anticipate some very ugly words if I fire her in person or over the phone. She’s started taking her frustration out on me.

Any thoughts?


Thank you for your kind words about my blog.  I'm glad I give you the kind of support you need.

Whether this woman is paying you or not doesn't change your exposure to malpractice, doesn't change your professional obligations to her OR her obligations to you as a client.  You are entitled to respect and cooperation. Whether pro bono or not, I'm sure you have a clause in your retainer agreement which states you have the right to terminate representation pursuant to the Rules of Professional Conduct in your state and/or any local customs of your courts IF the client does not cooperate or makes it difficult for you to represent her.  She needs to be reminded that just because she isn't paying for your services doesn't mean that your services are not worth paying for.  And you need to remember this, too.  This type of client, although you sympathize with her plight, is:

  • dragging you down professionally;
  • eating up your time which you could be using to market your services and educating yourself on how to get paying clients;
  • making you regret your generosity;
  • In making you regret your generosity, you may feel disinclined to do pro bono work for "many low income DV victims in my community who need my help."

Do not turn over your "power" to one bad client regardless their personal situation.  Pro bono work poorly handled from a business perspective could very well put you out of business. (It would be interesting to see how many hours you could have billed to see the dollar value of the time you generously donated.)Pro bono work is a gift you give back to the community and it is part of a well-designed business plan.  Understand its place in the worklife of a solo practitioner. 

If you need to fire her, make sure you do it properly (get advice from a more seasoned lawyer) and for your safety, make sure you have someone present.  Let her understand she has created this situation, and while you sympathize with her plight, she has made it impossible for you to work with her.  If she is indigent, find out if there are other legal aid services or other attorneys who do similar pro bono work and provide the names of the agencies and the attorneys with telephone numbers so she has some direction.

Again, just because no money has changed hands does not mean you should treat her any differently than a paying client who is disruptive or uncooperative.  If you make a mistake, your license to practice is still on the line.

Let us know how it works out.  And if others have a suggestion, please add to the discussion.

Links of Interest:

Don't Let Pro Bono Work Put You Out of Business.

If Your Clients Don't Add Value To Your Legal Services Business...Fire Them!


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "You Ask....I Answer" - I Want to Fire A Pro Bono Client. What Say You?:


Chuck Newton

... AND YOU ARE OUT OF HERE! That is at least what I would say to myself about the client. You want to help, but life is just too short having to go through it feeling homely, tired and ugly. You need to try to help people where you can. It is not about the money. It is about your moral objectives in life. But, you can go further with a 100 clients who want to go with you than one wrapped around your neck. As we say in Texas, "it's time to cut bait".


When you deal with people in abusive relationships you might be surprised how often you are dealing with two (not one) abusive person.

Sheila Rambeck

I am so grateful for your article today. It was just what I needed. I, too, have a client who didn't start out as pro bono but this client can no longer pay me. I've been doing the work because I feel sorry for the client, but I cringe when the phone rings or this client sends me a text message. This client has become difficult, doesn't follow my advice, wants me to file motions that I know will not succeed, and seems to expect that I will do as told even though I know better. I am now in a better frame of mind to fire the client!


I'm a DV advocate who stumbled onto this posting while searching for something else, As you think about working with this DV survivor, consider asking her if she will give you a release to work with her DV advocate as well. Remember that DV survivors can often get in to an all-or-nothing state of mind -- if you aren't doing exactly what she imagines it actually feels to her that you are doing nothing. This kind of hero/zero thinking can reflect a life-long experience of living with people who are all-or-nothing in their offers of love. Working closely with her therapist and/or advocate can help her to accept the generous support you're offering her. And, if this doesn't work out, please don't let this experience sour you on working with other survivors.

The comments to this entry are closed.