- Are there any early indicators that a client might prove to be difficult to work with?
Some time ago I joined a discussion on SoloSez about how to identify “problem” clients. It quickly became apparent that, regardless of practice area, some actions, comments, and/or behaviors provided clear indications that the attorney-client relationship was not going to be a good one. This list and the comments about each item represent our consensus.
- “I don’t care what it costs—it is the principle of the thing” or any other comment a client makes insisting that money is no object, and they don’t care what it costs. Don’t believe it. It will be erased from memory the minute they get the first bill, and you will be accused of running up the bill.
- “My [insert name of relative here] had a case just like.” Yep. Sure. And if it went well, why aren’t you using the lawyer that the relative used? Alternative: “Well, in my relative’s case . . . ” a few hundred times thereafter. And your advice will be ignored, but the result will be your fault.
- When a client suffers minimal financial harm, has not confided in anyone (either a coworker, friend or spouse) about his/her alleged emotional stress, presents little or no evidence of ongoing insulting/harassing conduct, has not sought therapy but nonetheless feels an entitlement to hefty damages for emotional distress, there are going to be problems. These types of clients are so wrapped up in their anger and self-righteousness that they are simply cannot comprehend the obstacles to proving the level of damages to which they believe they are entitled.
- Clients who sign things without reading (or claim that’s what they did). This is not always one that you can find out at the initial intake, but sometimes you might. One attorney had a client who claimed that s/he had never received a certain form. But when [counsel] looked through the paperwork, [counsel] saw that s/he’d signed something acknowledging that s/he had received the form. When asked, [client] said s/he just signed but it was not true; s/he actually had not received the form. Oy vey! So much for the case. Besides, what do you think they are going to say about their contract with you?
- “I know for a fact that X couldn’t do [fill in the blank] to me—it’s not legal”
- “I know they’ll settle as soon as a complaint is filed.” “Just write a letter and they’ll pay.” “They’ll settle—they don’t want the publicity.” Right. Although these statements are not specifically a red flag, they clearly signal that some education is needed and that you could easily have a very unhappy client.
- A client who, in his or her view “knows” the law, believes that the case was a slam dunk, and is looking for a “creative” lawyer who will see things her way.
- A client who refuses to produce documents, especially if s/he says we don’t need them.
- Prospect calls inquiring about representation in filing a formal complaint. Case sounded worth scheduling an initial consultation. Prospect asks if she can just put my name down on the complaint as her representative but is told “No.” Shortly thereafter, and before the scheduled appointment, [counsel] receives a letter addressed to me as her representative. Best case scenario, she heard what she wanted to hear. Alternative: she knew exactly what you said and decided she knew better than you, or was willing to screw you to serve her own ends. If she is doing something like this now, you’re expecting future cooperation based on what, exactly?
- Whining clients are never satisfied.
- Lying. Absolute truthfulness cannot be expected in a criminal practice, but lying is a huge flag, especially in any noncriminal matter.
- “We’re all businessmen. Why do you need such a large retainer?” For corporations especially but sometimes for business owners as well. It is always a sign they are not going to pay promptly, they won’t keep the retainer topped off, and it is usually a sign they will stiff me.
- “Oh, but this case will bring you so much publicity, it will make your practice.” Yeah, right. And Safeway will give me food for my children just because I'm a nice guy.
- “Oh, we’ve agreed on everything: now we just need you to write it up.” Right. This can be heard in family law and any number of business and/or commercial transaction matters. Invariably, they did not think of something important that they do not agree about, do not think is important, and are absolutely unwilling to pay for but which must be done.
- Where you explain to a client (or potential client, if you’re lucky) that the law on the point is settled by case law, and it is settled against them, and the client replies “Well then, they mustn’t have been a very good lawyer if they lost the case.”
- “This is really a simple matter.” Often followed by, “It shouldn’t take too much time.” Yeah. Right.
- Beware of the client who comes to the first meeting laden with 4 shopping bags and 3 shoe boxes of papers
- Never be the third attorney to represent the client.
- “I don’t have any money.” Translated: I don’t have any money that I want to give you. If the client refuses to pay even a small amount toward costs in contingency cases. Without an investment in the case, clients will tell you anything they think you want to hear. Make sure the client has something at stake if they lose—even if it is only a few hundred dollars. Otherwise, the client is looking at this like a lottery ticket—maybe they’ll win, maybe not, but unlike a lotto ticket, they don’t even have the cost of the ticket at stake. If they aren’t willing to put up a little of their own money, why should you put up your time and effort?
Thanks to Solosezzers Charles Abbut, Patrick Begos, Jim Calloway, Becki Fahle, Ron Jones, Christina Kallas, CJ Stevens, and Laura C. Tharney. If I inadvertently overlooked a contributor, I apologize.