The Big Bad Client

By Greg Lawless


Ask Yourself Five Questions and Learn How to Say “No” to New Clients

While the advertising you see in bar journals talks a great deal about marketing and attracting clients, I have found that what is not only more difficult, but also more important, is the ability to say “no” to prospective new clients.

I have been practicing law since 1978, always in small law firms. My practice focuses mostly on real estate transactions. Many of us enter the practice of law because we find it challenging and because we have an innate desire to help people. In a sense, it is that latter trait that gets us into trouble. When a potential new client walks in the door, the natural tendency is to take on the matter because we know we can help that individual, and we want to. The desire to take on new clients is particularly strong with a new lawyer, because expanding the client base is a major goal.

Beware. There is nothing worse than a bad client. Bad clients take on many forms, but the most common traits are: (1) they will not listen to your advice; (2) they are unappreciative of your efforts; (3) they are time consuming; and (4) they do not pay their bill on time, or at all. By handling the affairs of a bad client, you now are less available to a good client. Your time is spent in an enterprise both unsatisfying and financially unrewarding. Have the courage to just say “no.”

When considering taking on a new matter, review the following checklist to see if it is really something you should do.

  1. Is the case a good one? You don’t want to spend time working on lost causes. You can advise the client “We have less than a 10 percent chance,” or “The odds are against us.” He or she will urge you forward with reckless abandon. Then, when the judge rules against you, the client will place the blame on you. As an added fringe disadvantage, you have also caused the judge and opposing counsel’s opinion of your law practice to plummet because they have decided you either have not screened your cases, or cannot screen your cases.

  2. Do you communicate well with the client? Ultimately the relationship is about your advice, the client giving the input you need, and the client following your advice. If you do not communicate well, then problems will arise down the line. Here, go with your instincts. If you do not like a client, and can’t articulate why, honor your subconscious and do not represent that person

  3. Does this case make financial sense? If you’re not going to get paid, or it is unlikely you will get paid, then you would be better off doing _______________ (fill in the blank with your favorite pastime).

  4. Can I do the matter efficiently and effectively? If the matter is way outside what you normally do, then you have two alternatives. Either invest a huge amount of time, and discount your bill massively, or bill the client for all your time, secure in the knowledge you are taking unfair advantage of that client. Neither is an acceptable alternative.

  5. Do I want to do this? A file that you dread quickly becomes a daily burden, taking much of the joy out of the practice of law. If you can honestly answer “This is something I want to do,” then your odds of success and your odds of enjoying the process are very high.

There are millions of clients out there. You cannot represent them all. There are millions of lawyers out there too. If you can steel yourself to represent only those clients who get past my five questions your practice will thrive, and the bad clients can find some other lawyer as their victim.

Greg Lawless practices at the Lawless Partnership in Seattle, Washington.
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