Lawyers have traditionally paid little attention to how they end their lawyer-client relationships. This appears to be a natural human tendency rooted in a discomfort our society has with ending relationships and facing loss. Respectful termination of the lawyer-client relationship is both an ethical duty and an important professional skill.
Nevertheless, relationships need closure for reasons critical to both the client and the lawyer. After carefully working to represent the client in a respectful and attentive way, it is a mistake for the lawyer to contradict these messages by leaving the client’s world without saying goodbye. Ignoring the termination process can diminish the gains accomplished in the lawyer-client relationship, and can discourage clients from seeking legal services in the future. On the flip side, saying a proper goodbye frames a respectful relationship from start to finish, and ends the relationship with the candor, transparency and honesty with which it began.
In many lawyer-client relationships, these goodbyes need not be long or unnecessarily complicated. The dynamics of termination, however, often lead to strong sudden emotion. A lawyer-client relationship that has achieved some kind of closure and an honest and constructive end can serve both the client and lawyer in future relationships. On the other hand, a long-term, intense relationship that has ended with many loose ends hanging can trouble both client and lawyer for years.
Types of Endings and Transitions
The lawyer-client relationship ends under a variety of different circumstances. Two types of circumstances are common to the lawyer-client relationship. First, there is termination occurring at the natural end of the legal case, such as at the conclusion of a court proceeding. The termination is the lawyer-client goodbye in its purest form—a goodbye at the end for both sides as the work of the relationship has been completed. Second, there is the transfer of a case from one attorney or legal intern to another. This type of transition, which is common in a clinical setting, can happen at a time fixed in advance or not: the end of the semester, a student’s graduation, the supervisor’s sabbatical or even retirement..
Four Affects of Goodbye for Both Lawyer and Client
Saying goodbye can trigger feelings of the deepest kind in both the lawyer and the client. Much of the literature on goodbye links the affects associated with termination to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ groundbreaking work on the stages of grief during death and dying. These stages are denial, anger, mourning and resolution. 1 Each affect can predominate at any given moment of a termination and should be understood on its own terms.
Both the lawyer and the client are subject to these feelings in facing the end of their relationship. In fact, the complexity can be compounded by the fact that the lawyer and client are facing these affects independently but at the same moment. Thus, for example, the client’s anger can intersect with the lawyer’s denial or the client’s denial with the lawyer’s anger in ways that can thwart an honest and constructive leave-taking.
Without an understanding of the necessary phases of saying goodbye in the course of these relationships, lawyers may experience only the denial and anger in terminations without any tools to deal with them. This could lead lawyers to prematurely end the termination process leaving both themselves and, importantly, their clients at loose ends. The constructive work, the respectful and honest talk that has characterized the relationship up to then, will seem compromised or even contradicted. Clients will be left with a deeply unfinished feeling that may poison their appreciation of the relationship as a whole; they could feel betrayed or let down, in a way that does not reflect the excellent work of the relationship. Lawyers could start their new lawyer-client relationships with unaddressed pain from the lack of closure in ending earlier relationships, which may lead to burnout and cynicism. Unhealthy ends to relatively healthy lawyer-client relationships can undo much of the good of the lawyer-client relationship.
By contrast, a goodbye worthy of the relationship reinforces the positive gains and rapport of the relationship, ends it honestly, sends the client off with the lawyer’s carefully chosen parting thoughts, and leaves the lawyer with a sense of a job carefully started, executed and finished. This earnest sense of true completion helps both client and lawyer move forward to new challenges on a complete and positive note.
Thankfully, there are tools for lawyers to think more clearly during these emotional times and end their professional relationships in ways that are commensurate with the care, thoughtfulness and respect that have characterized the relationships to date.
Four Overarching Principles for Leaving the Client’s World
1. The Termination Should Match the Lawyer-Client Relationship
Each relationship, in its uniqueness, should end in a way that is true to its essential character. Some relationships are intense, whereas others are relatively short or only skim the surface. Since termination is often a time to look back and assess the character of the relationship, termination often necessarily implicates consideration of what the essential character of the lawyer-client relationship has been over time.
For example, the termination probably should not include activities that are new to the lawyer and client, such as meals or special celebrations. These may simply whet the client’s and the lawyer’s appetite for more interaction, or risk crossing professional boundaries just at a time when those boundaries are finally being closed. On the other hand, if there are activities that the lawyer and client normally engaged in, it is often nice to engage in them again one last time.
2. Be Honest with the Client and Yourself as You End
In some terminations, lawyers should be prepared to discuss a great deal with their clients about the process of saying goodbye; in others, less will be said. In any case, whatever is said must be honest. It must be true to the relationship and to the client’s and lawyer’s true feelings about it.
3. Consider Carefully What Termination Means to This Client in This Context
Each client has an approach to goodbye that is born of her personality and her history. Many of the devices that lawyers used to organize their understanding of the client-in-context may be very helpful in figuring out what termination means to the client.
Consideration of the client’s daily or weekly schedule or events surrounding her life at this particular moment may also shed light on how a particular form of leave-taking can dovetail with other challenges or transitions happening in her life. If, for instance, you believe a goodbye will be hard for a child client, and you know that the client has regular therapeutic support in her life, scheduling the Goodbye before her weekly counselling could help the client immediately process a difficult parting.
4. Keep Straight What Your Client Is Experiencing from What You Are
Lawyers should distinguish between feelings that are their own and those that are the client’s’. A helpful signal to lawyers that their needs are overshadowing the client’s is an intense or sudden emotion or impulsive desire, for instance, a sudden desire to buy the client a present, a sudden anger with the client, or a sudden desire to cut the termination process short. At any given moment it is useful for lawyers to ask: “Am I responding to my own need or my client’s needs?” In particular, the discipline of saying goodbye in the framework below can help lawyers who are too ready to say goodbye after a difficult case to not skip important steps in ending the relationship respectfully and honestly.
Ten Concrete Skills and Strategies for Constructive Termination
Although there is clearly no formula for a perfect termination, the following concrete tips may make it possible for lawyers to think constructively about termination in an individual client’s case.
1) Think about Termination from Day One
Lawyers should start overtly planning for termination as soon as the relationship starts, and mention clear time markers from the start of the case. For instance, a student intern who knows he will be serving in a clinic for a fixed period of time, or a lawyer who has just learned that he is going to move out of the area, should let the client know as soon as possible that an end is in sight. The lawyer might even frame the relationship from the start: “I will be working with you from January to May.” Even if that end is many months away, it is critical that these endings not come as a surprise, and the time will pass quickly; when the end is uncomfortably near, a lawyer may find herself very grateful that it was previewed from the beginning.
2) Think Carefully About Timing
It is important to be mindful of what is going on with the client and her daily life when planning the final goodbye. Will this goodbye land in the middle of other challenging moments for the client in other parts of her life? Ideally, the lawyer’s thinking about a goodbye would take place over a four- to six-week period. Telling the client well in advance, perhaps at first lightly mentioning, and then intensifying as it gets closer, that the relationship will come to an end allows the lawyer to fit saying goodbye into the natural process of the case.
Whenever possible, it is important to involve the client in the process of determining how and when to end the relationship. For instance, as a final court date looms, the lawyer can mention to the client what happens after the court proceeding and design a final meeting with the client, discussing where and when that will be. This pre-planning helps because spontaneous planning in the moment of goodbye (just after an emotional end to the court case, for instance) may be difficult; it can be very comforting to carry out a plan the lawyer and client already made before the emotions were upon them.
3) As Termination Approaches Address the Impending Goodbye Head On
This skill involves honesty in acknowledging and sharing the feelings that are involved in the termination process. Here, the goal is not for the lawyer to unburden herself upon the client, but rather to be honest about a painful but necessary process. This is also a moment for the lawyer to take stock; many goodbyes have positive aspects to them – e.g., progress in the case, leaving the relationship with the client better off – so sadness need not be the prevailing emotion. The lawyer should try above all to address the goodbye in a way that is consistent with the way she has run the rest of the case. For instance, a lawyer need not burden a relationship that has largely proceeded by text or phone interactions with heavy in person meetings. The lawyer can match the goodbye to the relationship by continuing what has organically evolved in the relationship in terms of modes of communication, intensity of contact, recurring messages and the like.
4) Set Goals for the Termination
Lawyers should set realistic goals for the termination. No miracle cures for unresolved issues will be found. The process of termination need not be long or cumbersome. It may be enough in some cases to say, “I wanted to just think back on our relationship, see where we have been, where we have come, think about where you are going, and reflect on what we have learned during our work together.” In the discussion that ensues, the lawyer must listen carefully and speak honestly. This includes expressing honest feelings about what was not resolved.
5) Retrace Your Steps
A good termination may consist largely of reminiscing. Reviewing shared experiences together, as well as what the lawyer-client relationship has accomplished, is often a very concrete and helpful way of retracing the steps. It may also provide a welcome time to acknowledge good moments that passed without mention or to remark on highpoints that will stay with the lawyer long past the end of the relationship.
6) Provide and Seek Honest Feedback
Lawyers can seek open and constructive criticism of their performance. They can explain that they want constantly to improve at helping clients and to elicit both positive and negative feedback, asking the client what times he or she remembers most fondly about the relationship and what times were hard.
7) When You Are Both Ready, Focus on the Future
It is often helpful to point out to the client the skills the client has in dealing with issues in the future, and also to help the client understand when they might need to seek legal help again. With respect to the first, the client should know what resources she takes into the future in her world in which she will not have the lawyer as her legal representative. With respect to the second, lawyers should help the client understand both what legal and non-legal help are available, offering potential referrals where appropriate.
8) Work with Others Important to the Client as Well
Throughout the lawyer-client relationship, the lawyer may have had to consult many other professionals and other people working with the client who will remain with the client long after the lawyer leaves. The lawyer should also involve these people in the process of ending, making sure that they know what resources are available to the client after the lawyer is gone and giving them the benefit of reflections on the lawyer-client relationship. This may also alert therapeutic professionals working with the client to support the client during the goodbye. This was particularly important to Jean in her work representing children in child protective cases. To the extent that the lawyer has developed important and close working relationships with some of the professionals, those relationships deserve attention and closure as well.
9) Be Creative About Saying Goodbye
There are some cases in which significant effort may be taken in designing and carrying out a goodbye. For example, the lawyer could arrange to take a picture together with the client, creating a memory book, or writing a goodbye letter. It is important to remember that every termination should uniquely reflect the character of the relationship that the lawyer and client have had all along.
10) Ask Yourself, Do you Feel Finished?
As the termination approaches, lawyers should take time to figure out whether closure has actually been achieved. Lawyers should be aware of stray feelings or loose ends that are nagging at them and face them squarely. They should also encourage the client to do so by asking, “Are there any left over questions that you have? Are there any other things you would like us to cover before we end?” Only the lawyer and the client will know when goodbye is finished, and that knowledge will probably come from a gut feeling as much as anything else.
While often a sad moment, nothing is as satisfying as a sense that the relationship has ended in the spirit in which the whole relationship was undertaken. An honest and thoughtful ending can make new beginnings with other clients easier to take off because the parameters of the relationship are understood and the endings, while sad, are no longer dreadful or full of unknown traps.
Considerations Special to Transitions
Many of the principles and strategies above apply directly to transitions with clients, that is, times when the client is continuing with the organization or clinic but the lawyer who has represented them is leaving. The lawyer’s goal in that case should be to set the stage as constructively as possible for successful further work between the client and the future representative(s). For example, the lawyer might arrange for the person(s) taking over the case to attend the leaving professional’s last court date and to meet all the professionals then, so that a smooth transition can take place.
It is important to ensure that the lawyer’s schedule does not overly determine the pace of cases. In undertaking the transition, lawyers should keep in mind first and foremost the needs of the client and the needs of the professionals taking over.
Transferring cases and transitions are very common and require a great deal more research and study. While general principles and strategies used in termination can be useful, the transitions are common enough and different enough from endings to warrant separate research and thought in planning them. For now, practitioners’ focus on setting the stage for as successful further work as possible and their extreme awareness of the difference between the lawyer’s experience and the client’s experience should help lawyers handle these transitions in a constructive fashion. 2
Suggestions for Teaching Goodbye
Clinical teachers and supervisors have valuable experience saying goodbye to their clients, and have the privilege of guiding their students in that process. While goodbyes tend to creep up on students, clinical teachers see them coming. As such, teachers can and should plan thoughtfully and creatively to include a lesson on goodbyes in their teaching curricula. Doing so constructively offers the students a professional framework that they can replace, tweak or evolve over their careers.
Included in the resources below is a PowerPoint from Jean’s concurrent presentation at the AALS Clinical Conference in 2018, considering goodbyes lawyers say with clients, teachers say with students, and teachers say upon retirement.
A lesson on goodbye may consist of the following progression:
- Introductory prompt: Recall a goodbye (or lack thereof) that affected you deeply. Be prepared to discuss with a neighbor for 3 minutes.
- A few words about termination in the clinical context: Teachers may point out that lawyers and clinic students say goodbye not only to their clients, but also to their supervisors and to the other students. While the focus of the lesson may be on lawyer-client goodbyes, many of the same principles apply to other types of professional goodbyes.
- A hypothetical: Teachers might present students with a hypothetical of a lawyer saying goodbye to a client as a way to ground the subsequent presentation and discussion. The most straightforward hypothetical will deal with the conclusion of a case (such as after a court hearing) and the goodbye that must accompany such termination. If time allows, teachers might offer a second hypothetical that deals with the transfer of a case from one lawyer or clinical student to another.
- Explanation of the “stages of grief:” Teachers can introduce students to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s research on death and dying (see footnote 1 above), and explain the theory’s application to clinical goodbyes. In addition, and as applicable, teachers might consider sharing their own struggles with goodbyes and acknowledge the difficulties associated with facing and recognizing loss.
- Four Principles: Teachers can then provide a brief overview of the four principles (described above), setting the stage to a discussion of practical skills.
- Ten Skills and Strategies: Next, teachers can run through the ten skills and strategies to saying goodbye to clients. It is helpful when teachers give specific examples from their own practice—both, what worked well and what didn’t. Teachers should also elicit participation from students in the form of questions or sharing of experiences.
- Conclusion: Teachers are encouraged to offer key takeaways, emphasizing the rewards that can come with thoughtfully planned goodbyes: a sense of satisfaction, deep gratitude, and confidence in the future.
Aside from planning a lesson on closure between students and their clients, teachers should bear in mind that students who leave at the end of a clinic or internship term are experiencing a number of goodbyes at once. It is critical that teachers are available to their students to think through terminations and to take them very seriously. Students, in turn, should look to their supervisors and to each other for an extra amount of support during this time but also be very aware of the necessity of keeping their substantial issues separate from the issues that the client may be facing.
Finally, as in all things, teachers perform a message by how they handle or don’t handle goodbyes in their own lives. In this regard, teachers should pay close attention to how they plan their own goodbyes to their students. To be sure, some teachers and students will remain in touch over the succeeding years. But teachers will never again reconvene a particular class of students. Therefore, both student and teacher need closure to finish a fruitful partnership in learning, at the time that it naturally ends. By thoughtfully planning and carrying out a classroom goodbye—or individual student goodbyes, as appropriate—teachers thus have a last powerful opportunity to impart the rewards of an honest and fitting goodbye through their example.
Other Useful Resources
- Legal Sources
Jean Koh Peters, Leaving the Child’s World, in Representing Children in Child Protective Proceedings: Ethical and Practical Dimensions, 507- 543 (1996/2007).
Naomi R. Cahn and Norman G. Schneider, The Next Best Thing: Transferred Clients in a Legal Clinic, 36 Cath. U. L. Rev. 367 (1986)
Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 1.4, 1.5, 1.16.
- Sources from Other Disciplines
Nat’l Assoc. of Soc. Workers, Code of Ethics of the Nat’l Assoc. of Soc. Workers § 1.16.
- See, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (1969). For an explanation of each stage, see Jean Koh Peters, Representing Children in Child Protective Proceedings: Ethical and Practical Dimensions (2007), p. 515-16. ↩
- For more on goodbye in the context of a transition, but not a termination, for the client,
see Jean Koh Peters, Representing Children in Child Protective Proceedings: Ethical and Practical Dimensions (2007), p. 538-541. ↩