General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division The Compleat Lawyer
Winter 1998 © American Bar Association. All rights reserved.
Nine Clients You Don't Want
The first interview with a potential client is a lot like a first date, says Portland, Oregon, lawyer K. William Gibson, author of How to Build and Manage a Personal Injury Practice (American Bar Association, 1997). "Everyone is on good behavior. Only after you've signed up and everyone relaxes do you find out the real story."
Weeding out problem clients early can reduce the need for withdrawal later, along with withdrawal's inherent risks. Here are nine clients to be wary of:
• Latecomers. The client who comes to you the day before the pleading is due or the statute of limitation expires is either expecting a miracle or hoping you won't delve too deeply into the matter. Tell this client you do not have enough time to give the matter the attention it deserves.
• Revenge seekers. "Spend as much time understanding your clients and their motivations as you do the legal work they're bringing to you," says David J. MacDougall, a Janesville, Wisconsin, lawyer. "If a client's motivation is to extract a pound of flesh for the sake of ego or to make a point, be very concerned about how you proceed." These clients may later aim those vindictive feelings toward you.
• Cash cows. Put your antennae up if a client promises a long and lucrative relationship, especially if the representation is outside of your area of expertise or seems a tad questionable. "Think through all the steps involved. What path will that representation take you?" asks Kirk R. Hall, chief executive officer of the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund and a past member of the ABA Standing Committee on Lawyers' Professional Liability. The cash cow may have to be culled from the herd.
• Shoppers. Clients who have already fired one or more lawyers or who appear to be comparison shopping may be looking for something you cannot deliver. "The clients with the most meritorious cases rarely decide to switch lawyers in the middle of a case," Gibson says.
• Dreamers. A client who holds fast to pie-in-the-sky expectations about the value or outcome of a case is unlikely to be satisfied with your representation. Clients come to you with many expectations in mind about their legal problem. Your job is to discover these expectations and explain what you—and the legal system—can and cannot do for them.
• Commanders. A client who wants to direct his or her own case not only jeopardizes the outcome of the case but also exposes you to legal malpractice. If you offer to "unbundle" legal services, be aware that you are liable for any errors or omissions made in the legal work, even if the client performs some of the investigation or legal research.
• Bargain hunters. Clients who want to dicker about fees or insist upon unreasonable fee limits either cannot afford to hire you or don't value your service. Malpractice claims often ensue when a lawyer attempts to collect unpaid legal fees. Take a pass.
• Poison apples. The client or prospective client who drips sweetness to you, then verbally abuses your staff, is trouble. "Is this client someone my staff and I want to work with for the next one to two years? Hardly. Law is difficult enough even under the best circumstances," Gibson says.
• No shows. "If a client doesn't show for a first appointment, I rarely give him or her a second chance," says Gibson. "That client doesn't value my time." Chances are, the client won't value your work either.