Volume 19, Number 5
The Business of Law
When to Say No: Ten Ways to Assess Prospective Clients
By Edward Poll
Client selection-and rejection-is the first line of defense against malpractice problems, and it has the added benefit of being a wonderful management tool for law firms. Articulated client selection procedures can make the practice of law easier because you avoid the stress of a difficult client; minimize problems with fee collections or fee write-offs; and improve office morale by escaping the time and energy consumption caused by unreasonable and overly demanding clients.
Client Selection Plans
Client selection starts with drawing up a plan for client intake procedures-and then sticking to it. Putting the plan in writing helps lock it in your mind and gives you something objective to review as often as necessary until you are comfortable with it. Stick to the plan; do not deviate from it without a really good, objective reason.
Set aside adequate time for a careful initial interview. Discuss the client's expectations, case goals, and previous legal system experience. Be realistic in discussing your expectations; do not embellish or low-ball the fee to seal the deal-this could turn out worse than if the client left after hearing the projected reality. Listen to and assess negative reactions or intuitions you or your staff report. Finally, send written notice of every rejection to the prospective client, and retain a copy for the firm's records, as well as proof of mailing/delivery.
When to Reject Clients
A plan for selecting clients should also include a section on when and how to say no to accepting a client. Here are ten client characteristics that might alert you to reject a case:
1. Clients who show up suddenly with last-minute emergencies. Unless you specialize in crises, this type of client carries inherent risks: Time crunches often push work to less-experienced lawyers, and statutes of limitation and deadlines may not allow adequate preparation or review. This can increase a firm's risk of time-element malpractice claims, which comprise nearly 25 percent of all malpractice claims.
2. Clients who play law firm Ping-Pong. Moving from lawyer to lawyer can indicate a person who is really never satisfied and all too willing to blame the attorney.
3. Clients with unrealistic expectations or demands. Extra red flags should go up for one who frames an estimated outcome, time frame, or fee as a guarantee. The client who expresses irritation with delay or demands constant or instant attention and hand holding might just be the alter-ego of the chronic switicher.
4. Clients who demand that all other cases come second. They eventually overwhelm an attorney and other firm resources with their constant calls for updates or progress.
5. Clients with bad attitudes toward lawyers and the legal system. Lawyer bashing to your face, even if done in a joking manner, may show a hidden disdain or contempt for the law, judges, or lawyers. You might find it difficult to establish a bond of trust-the cornerstone of the lawyer-client relationship.
6. Clients who imply they know better. This includes clients who want the lawyer to be simply a mouthpiece on their behalf. If the client's girlfriend took a few law classes in college and wants to run the show, let her take the case.
7. Clients who cannot articulate why they want a lawyer. Unmet psychological needs or ulterior motives may be at work. Clients looking for revenge may turn on the lawyer, creating a perfect environment for a claim of negligence.
8. Clients who make legal fees and costs a major issue. Suits against clients for unpaid legal fees are a prime source of malpractice claims. Clients who cannot or will not sign a fee agreement or pay a retainer should be suspect, as well as those who want to sue now and pay later.
9. Clients outside your normal areas of expertise. Taking a case for the learning experience could turn out to include a lesson in insurance coverage and claims surcharges.
10. Clients who use the promise of further work as an inducement. This could be a sign they know the downside of their case quite well. Promises to give a firm business "down the road" or increase referrals are really just a sales pitch, especially if you end up fighting a malpractice claim down that road.
Careful client selection is only one factor in claims avoidance, but it is a major one. Taking more time in the initial interview will lead to more fun and even profit from the matters you do accept.
Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a certified management consultant and coach whose latest book is Attorney & Law Firm Guide to the Business of Law: Planning & Operating for Survival & Growth, 2nd edition (ABA 2001). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.