Volume 20, Number 5 July/August 2003



By Lonny H. Dolin

You have done it. Your marketing efforts have paid off. You worked hard to build your practice and your good work produced more work, which in turn begat more work. As a result, you now face a new "problem." Your office phone is ringing off the hook with calls from people who want you to represent them.

When this first happened, you did what you needed to do to maximize your office's ability to efficiently handle more work. You let your staff screen your phone calls. You hired independent contractors, temporary help, or attorney service organizations to perform many of the time-consuming non-billable services you or your already overworked staff used to perform: court filings, multiple signature collection, messenger deliveries, large copying projects, etc. You even hired on an associate or brought in a partner or paralegal. Because you learned to manage your office more efficiently, for a year or two you were able to personally attend the initial consultation with every potential client who called your office. If the case was good, you were able to represent the new client. Things are now out of control again. You no longer can meet every potential client, and if you continue to represent new clients at the current pace, you will be unable to give your existing clients the comprehensive aggressive representation they have hired you to provide. As a result, you have no choice but to turn potential new clients away.

You may be thinking, "How difficult can it be to say no to a potential client?" What is the problem with just telling the people, "Sorry, we are not taking new cases right now"? Unfortunately, this approach creates a horrible impression of you and your office, eroding the good reputation you have spent years building in the community. Such an approach also enhances the likelihood that you may throw away the biggest potential case of your career and minimizes your ability to continue to attract the clients you want. Through the years I have learned that saying "no" the right way to most of the 200 potential clients who contact our offices each month is a fine art.

Set Up a Screening Process
In my practice, we found it cost effective over the long run to hire sufficient staff so that each person who calls for representation has direct contact with a pleasant, competent individual. Within a day of the phone call, intake paralegals first do a conflict check on each potential client. Once conflicts are cleared, each intake is told that only a few of the hundreds of individuals who call our office seeking representation each month actually become clients. The paralegal then explains the steps the intake will go through before we can agree to represent him or her. First, potential clients must answer a short series of basic questions about who they are, who their employer is, and what employment-related concern they want to review with me. If the matter is something I am not able to or interested in handling, I will immediately send the intake one of the numerous carefully crafted letters I have drafted detailing, with regret, the reasons I am not currently in a position to take his case. For example, the case may not be in my area of expertise, the case may be beyond the applicable statute of limitations, I may be unable to take the case on a contingent fee basis as requested, or I may be so busy at the moment that it would jeopardize my ability to competently handle my existing clients' matters if I currently took on the case.

If the intake's case appears to have merit and value, I will include in the rejection letter the names of competent attorneys who might be able to handle the case. If the intake does not appear to be strong on liability or is very weak on damages, I will simply provide the intake with the phone number of our County Bar Association's lawyer referral number. Your reputation and goodwill in the legal community will suffer if you deliberately refer bad cases to another attorney. Finally, if relevant, my pre-consultation rejection letter advises the intake about the short statute of limitations for dealing with employment matters and gives the intake information on how to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the State Division of Human Rights.

By taking the time necessary to personalize your rejection and to provide the intake with relevant important information, you will preserve your reputation as a competent, professional attorney who cares about clients. You cannot maintain that reputation by abruptly advising potential clients that you are too busy to have any contact with them. It's also important that you put each potential client through the initial intake process as quickly as possible. Your goal is not to further anger an already distressed person, who will be upset by your unwillingness to even meet with him before you decide you won't represent him.

Another successful technique used by offices inundated with telephone calls from individuals seeking representation is to screen potential clients through the use of a questionnaire. This technique requires you to send each person who calls your office seeking representation a detailed questionnaire by mail or e-mail. The questionnaire asks for basic information, including a written description of the events causing the potential client to seek legal representation. The general rule of thumb is that there is no charge for this review.

If the questionnaire is returned, it is reviewed by an attorney. A letter is immediately sent to anyone the attorney is unable or not interested in representing. If the attorney does want to proceed further and interview the potential client, then he or she is advised that a consultation fee is first required. The consultation fee will cover the time previously spent reviewing the intake's questionnaire and narrative and will also cover one hour of interview time. Intakes are advised that if the interview exceeds an hour, he or she will be billed at the attorney's hourly rate. Prior to the interview and payment of the consultation fee, the intake is advised in writing that an interview is not a guarantee that the attorney will take the case.

Make it clear that you cannot give any legal advice until you receive and review their materials. Also, make sure you advise intakes that they are to keep the original of all the materials they send you; if you do not take their case, you will not be returning the materials they send to you. In my field, it is also important to remind intakes that they must fill out the questionnaire as soon as possible to ensure that they don't miss the short time limit for pursuing employment claims.

Post-Consultation Rejections
We agree to represent only about 10 percent of the handful of clients we interview each month. Therefore, we reject most of the intakes we interview. At the end of our consultation, if we know that it would not be prudent for us to agree to represent the intake, we advise the intake of that fact immediately. We have learned that you can smooth over the rejection in person much better than if you simply decline representation in a letter. Moreover, we have learned that significant false expectations and subsequent ill will are created when you delay telling an intake you will not represent him or her.

Even if you orally tell an intake you interviewed that you are declining representation, it's imperative to send the intake a carefully crafted closing letter. This closing letter must make it clear that you are declining representation and that your declination is not to be viewed as an opinion on the merits of the intake's case. Encourage the intake to consult another attorney and provide the intake with names of other attorneys (if the case seems to have merit) or the phone number of the lawyer referral service in your jurisdiction. When it is called for I would encourage you to take an active role in finding another attorney for an intake you would like to represent but cannot. If your rejection has not been taken well by an intake whose anger may be problematic, you may want to follow up with that intake in the future to make sure they were able to secure representation.

Lonny H. Dolin practices law in Rochester, New York. She can be reached at ldolin@mail.dts-esq.com.

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