Red Flags: Avoiding the Bad Client
At one time or another each one of us has taken on clients who became disasters. It may have been because our rent was due and the clients had enough up-front money to cover it. It may have been because we felt sorry for them. It may have been because our phone wasn’t ringing and we needed to do something, anything, to feel like a lawyer. Regardless, in each case we wound up wishing we had never signed on.
How could we have steered clear? Easy—we could have declined representation if we only had observed the warning signs. In no particular order here are 20 clients to duck, or to dump, if you get sucked in:
1. Wimpy. If you remember Popeye you’ll remember Wimpy, who was fond of saying “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” This person has no money but he or she “is good for it.” Unless you need the pro bono hours or can afford to work for free, run! No retainer, no representation.
2. The Serial Client. You’re the third or fourth lawyer in the case. Either the client won’t ever be happy with the chosen lawyer, or the client didn’t pay the other lawyers, or something else is rotten in Denmark.
3. Last-Minute Charlie. This guy has piddled until he has one day left to beat the statute of limitations. Will he ever do anything on time? Will he even show up for trial?
4. The Irresponsible and Noncompliant Client. This one constantly misses or breaks appointments, and acts as though court orders are mere suggestions.
5. Blanche DuBois. She is always dependent on the kindness of strangers. She’s helpless and clueless and wants you to make all the decisions. And guess who she’ll blame if things go south?
6. The Professional Victim. Nothing is ever this client’s fault; the world conspires against him/her. If you agree to be this client’s representative, and anything at all goes wrong, you will only be the latest in a long line of betrayers.
7. The Greedy Client. If you get anything less than everything imaginable and then some, you’re a hack. Even if you get the perfect result you’re a hack—because you didn’t get a pound of flesh, too.
8. The Unbeliever. This person refuses to face the facts, such as “You likely will go to jail if convicted because you’ve been found guilty of DUI seven times before.”
9. The Crusader. Whenever you hear “It’s not the amount of money, it‘s the principle of the thing,” go to your “clientspeak” translator. This really means “I’m lying, it’s the money.” Again, get paid up front. Principles disappear when you start talking cash.
10. The Revenge Seeker. This client will want you to do things that don’t advance the case and may even hurt it, just to cause the other side pain. And you can bet this person will seek revenge against you later.
11. The Expert. You will be second-guessed at every turn because the client “knows the law” based on what the uncle’s step-daughter’s brother said, “who had a case just like mine, or, better yet, based on information found surfing the Internet.
12. The Withholder. You’ll be told only the “good” facts for fear that you’ll not take the case if you know the “bad” facts. No case has only good facts, and if the case looks too good to be true . . . well, you know the rest.
13. The Blue Light Special Shopper. This client will promise to “do a lot of the work” to keep costs down. Of course, the “work” will be unacceptable or it won’t be done, and you can count on the client questioning every fee you charge.
14. The Independent Contractor. This one wants you to take the case but then calls the opposing party to work things out; your only involvement is “to get their attention” and let them know the client is “serious.” The client will then give away information that hurts the case and probably settle on the side, cutting you out.
15. The Cash Cow Client. A client who promises a long and lucrative relationship with lots of fees to come if you’ll cut a cheaper deal now on this matter. Guess what? It won’t happen.
16. The Micro-Manager. This person already knows exactly how the case should be handled and tells you so in no uncertain terms. Just before you decline representation you might ask—for your own amusement—where the Micro-Manager went to law school.
17. Mr. Panic. Everything is a crisis. He’s the type who will send you an e-mail and then call in 30 minutes to ask why you haven’t responded yet. If you sign him on you’ll constantly fight, being sucked into his emergencies—and there will be many.
18. The Marionette. For those of you as old as I am, think of Howdy Doody. If you sense that someone else is pulling the PC’s strings, you had better find out who it is, and don’t take the case if you can’t first meet the puppeteer and lay down the ground rules.
19 The Moving Target. How can you possibly represent someone who doesn’t know what he/she wants on any given day? If you can’t pin the client down to a goal you will never be able to build a strategy to achieve it, and no result will be satisfactory.
20. The “Don Rickles.” Everyone knows him—he’s an equal opportunity nasty person. If the PC is rude to you or your staff, put him out the door. Life’s too short.
While everyone may be entitled to have a lawyer no one is entitled to have you as his or her lawyer. But if you’re ever tempted to take a case your instincts tell you to avoid, remember Mark Twain’s caution: “It is easier to stay out than to get out.” You’ll thank yourself later.
John D. Kitch has a solo practice in general civil law in Nashville, TN. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
© Copyright 2010, American Bar Association.