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Friendships with legal clients: the do’s and don’ts of inevitable relationships

the dos and don'ts of maintaining friendships with legal clients

Some people say mixing business with pleasure is always a bad idea.

For trial lawyers, who often work side-by-side with clients over many years, it’s nearly impossible to avoid having some measure of friendship with clients. How does an attorney navigate those waters?

To properly analyze the issue, let’s consider two common scenarios:

Scenario #1:

Imagine you’re an established trial attorney.

You receive a call from your old college roommate (“Mike”), who now owns a large manufacturing plant. He explains that his company was sued by a former employee.

You invite him into the office, and the two of you joke around like old times. So much so, in fact, that you spend less time on the details of his case than you should. Nonetheless, you’ve defended these suits before. Mike pays a large retainer and puts the future of his business in your hands.

Fast-forward four years.

The lawsuit hasn’t settled. In fact, 20 other former employees have joined as plaintiffs. Mike has paid your firm over $1.5 million in legal fees and there’s no end in sight.

To make things worse, he’s a couple of months behind on your bills, and the firm’s managing partner is demanding another $100,000 retainer in order for you to continue working on the matter. You don’t feel good about this situation.

Scenario #2:

The founder of a restaurant chain with locations throughout California (“Jim”) finds your firm’s website and notices that you specialize in harassment defense. His company has just been sued and he’s looking for the best representation he can get.

You meet, talk over the details of the case for three hours, and he agrees to retain you as his counsel.

Over the course of the next four years, 35 additional employees join the suit as plaintiffs.

You and Jim travel all over the state together as you take depositions and conduct investigations. During those trips, you naturally share meals together and sometimes, when you have to stay on location over a weekend, the two of you golf together. Jim typically gets the bill for these things and laughs it off as “the cost of doing business.”

You get to know each other’s families, backgrounds, and hobbies and you genuinely consider each other to be friends. In fact, Jim ends up being a big source of support when you separate from your spouse.

Nonetheless, the case isn’t looking good for Jim’s company.

He’s paid your firm $2.5 million in legal fees and, based on the discovery of a new “smoking gun” email, it appears unlikely the restaurant chain will get out of this unscathed.

Jim, who is obviously frustrated, starts making comments under his breath about your firm “getting rich” off of him. He begins eating meals without you on road trips, stating he can’t afford to feed you anymore.

One evening, after he’s been down at the hotel bar, he calls and accuses you of botching the case because you were distracted by the problems in your marriage.

The breakdown

Various iterations of both of the above scenarios happen all the time.

In both situations, you can see how the lawyer and client developed and maintained a friendship. Trial lawyers often spend a great deal of time with their clients and friendships inevitably happen.

Both of these lawyers, however, broke some of the cardinal rules of relationships with clients.

Let’s discuss some of the tried and true do’s and don’ts of mixing lawyering with friendship. These rules should make it patently clear where our two lawyers went wrong and how you can avoid similar dilemmas.

The Do’s

#1: Set good and maintain boundaries

One thing that both of our attorneys forgot to do was set good boundaries with their clients.

In Scenario 1, for example, the lawyer should have spent less time joking with his old roommate during their first meeting and more time ascertaining the facts of the case.

One way to keep boundaries clear with clients like this (who are existing friends) is to set a rule that time in the office is strictly for legal matters, whereas “friend-time” happens separate from the professional relationship.

We’ll save the boundary-breach in Scenario 2 for our don’ts sections below.

#2: Clearly explain how costs and billing work

In both scenarios, the clients eventually got tired of paying large legal bills.

While this isn’t unusual for any legal client, it is exceedingly uncomfortable when the client is your friend.

Both attorneys, therefore, would have done themselves a huge favor by clearly communicating how the legal bills would need to be handled throughout the course of the litigation.

#3: Clearly explain how litigation works and set realistic expectations

Lawyers often forget that their clients aren’t used to the litigation grind.

Both clients in our examples were frustrated because their cases weren’t resolved within four years. Unfortunately, that’s not an uncommon scenario.

The lawyers here could have saved themselves a lot of grief by explaining the realities of litigation to their clients.

The Don’ts

#1: Don’t involve clients in your personal affairs

This rule is harder to follow than it may seem.

If you’re building a friendship with a client, then you’ll undoubtedly share some personal details of your life.

Yet, look what happened to the attorney in our second scenario. He shared that he was going through a separation from his wife, which probably seemed harmless at the time. When the case started to go south, however, the client was all too quick to blame that personal problem.

One sure way to avoid this dilemma is to have a hard and fast rule against sharing overly-personal details with your clients.

Again, this is simply a matter of keeping good boundaries. You don’t have to share everything with all of your friends, and keeping your personal life personal is a good habit.

#2: Don’t make your clients into drinking buddies

This can be a tough “don’t” to follow, especially if an existing friend becomes your client.

The truth is, however, that drinking and client-conversations don’t mix. In fact, you can make all kinds of mistakes when drinking with a client or potential client.

Consequently, the best rule of thumb here is this: just don’t drink with clients. In fact, some experts recommend that you don’t drink with any of your professional contacts.

#3: Don’t let client-friends fall behind on bills

It is never a good idea for a law firm to ignore unpaid bills.

This is especially true with a client-friend. Why? Because they, more than other clients, may expect billing concessions from you.

The problem is that you (and the rest of your firm) have bills to pay. If you allow your client-friends not to pay, you’ll quickly face increasing pressure from your partners to collect or quit.

Final thoughts

It would be great if lawyers and clients could be friends without any problems.

The reality of the practice, however, simply doesn’t allow for that. Even if you’ve had friendships that didn’t go south, that doesn’t reduce your risks.

Pay attention to those boundaries and make sure you’re following all of your ethical rules. If you take heed of the above do’s and don’ts, you may be able to walk the line between lawyer and friend successfully.

Author

  • Jennifer Anderson

    Jennifer Anderson practiced business litigation in California from 1999 to 2016. When she’s not writing from her floating cabin on the Columbia River, she can be found hiking or kayaking around the Pacific Northwest.