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February 13, 2024 Feature

Choosing Your Clients: Four Factors to Consider Before Taking on a New Case

Alexandra Graves
Know your time limitations, the economics of the case, the limits of your expertise, and whether you can work with this client.

Know your time limitations, the economics of the case, the limits of your expertise, and whether you can work with this client.

Andrii Yalanskyi via Getty Images

Choosing your clients may seem like a luxury to some attorneys, particularly those who are just starting out on their own and are desperate for business, but all lawyers should consider certain key variables when deciding whom to represent . . . or not to represent. There are four main issues to consider: Do you have the time to take on the case? Do the economics of the case justify taking it on? Do you have sufficient experience in this area of law to represent this client effectively? And finally, can you work effectively with the potential client? To explore these issues further, I talked to seasoned general practitioner Douglas R. Bell of the Law Office of Bell & Bell in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, about his procedures when assessing the feasibility of taking on a new case and client.

1. Know Your Time Limits

Bell stated that the biggest factor he uses in determining whether to take on a new case is whether he has the time. As one of the last true general practitioners out there, he is well-versed in a variety of fields of law. There really isn’t much that he doesn’t feel comfortable working on. The biggest issue he must confront is whether he feels he has the time. What does the rest of his caseload look like? Does he actually have the time and resources necessary to devote to the case and the new client to provide effective representation? It’s a delicate balance between knowing your limits and not turning away potentially lucrative and useful business.

If he had all the time in the world, he’d probably take on every case that was sent his way. However, it’s just not feasible.

2. Determine the Economics of the Case

There’s more to selecting a client than whether you think the case could pay your bills for the entire next year. That would be nice, but it’s not something you can, or should, ever count on. When weighing the economic potential of a case, you need to consider whether this client can truly pay your legal bills and whether this case is winnable.

Bell finds that one of the most common issues arises when a potential client has unrealistic expectations of the logistics of the case—primarily, the up-front cost of just getting your foot in the courthouse door. They fail to realize that it costs thousands of dollars to file, take depositions, get records, etc. Unless you’re doing a lot of personal injury work, chances are you’re not working on a contingency basis. That means you’ll need to have hard conversations with a potential client regarding an initial retainer fee and how other expenses will accrue down the road. You will need to make your own assessment regarding potential clients’ ability to pay your fees. Will they have enough to pay the retainer? Are they aware of the costs involved in actively pursuing a lawsuit? You may not be able to get a clear-cut answer to these questions; you’ll have to depend a little on your gut in determining a client’s ability to pay. And, of course, always get a signed retainer agreement.

The other economic factor is the likelihood that the case will be successful. Most potential clients believe they have a slam-dunk case. It doesn’t help that they’ve likely talked to their uncle, who’s watched every episode of Perry Mason out there, or talked to their neighbor whose daughter is applying to law school, telling them, “Yes, you have a case!” Nor do all the TV commercials and billboards for lawyers help manage these expectations when they show ordinary, everyday people getting lawsuit paydays in the millions.

Unfortunately, as we all know, there is no such thing as a slam-dunk case. You never know what a judge or jury will decide. Make sure that potential clients are fully apprised of the possibility that things may not go their way, no matter how good they think their case is. It’s never a good idea to promise certain results to a potential client. We’re lawyers; we don’t have a crystal ball to tell the future. And if you think that there’s absolutely no chance that the case holds water, then, by all means, gently tell potential clients that you think their chances of success are quite low and you wouldn’t feel comfortable pursuing the case. The potential client may seek out another attorney, and that’s fine.

3. Understand What Is (and Isn’t) in Your Wheelhouse

There aren’t many areas of law in which Bell doesn’t feel comfortable representing clients. There may be areas where he’d rather not work, but chances are, he’s seen it in his long legal career as a general practitioner. That being said, some highly specialized areas, such as bankruptcy cases, have become so nuanced that it makes far more sense for him to refer those out to another firm. Bankruptcy cases primarily take place in federal court and entail numerous special regulations, codes, and laws. While Bell could handle something like that, the time it would take to research the relevant codes and provisions to provide the best representation to a new client would be unfair not only to this client but also to existing clients who are waiting on their own continued representation.

To a degree, this is just another aspect of the first question: Do you have the time to take on this case? Becoming sufficiently proficient in a niche area of law takes time, time that most clients don’t have. Referring those cases out is the far better option. Build your go-to network of attorneys for the areas in which you don’t feel comfortable taking on clients (or for any area of the law when you just don’t have the time for new clients). Bell used to do a lot of personal injury cases. Now, as his practice has grown in different directions, personal injury is one facet of law he tends to refer out.

There is also the matter of providing competent representation. If you truly don’t know anything about a certain area of law, you really have no choice but to refer it out. You don’t want to risk a malpractice suit, nor do you want to adversely affect the potential client with your lack of experience. Everyone loses in that scenario. Something else to consider when referring out a case is that you, as the referring attorney, may be eligible to receive a referral fee from the other firm. Getting paid for recognizing your own limits is always a plus.

4. Decide Whether You Can Work with This Client

It may seem a bit childish, but consider whether you and the potential client will get along. Your potential client is in a vulnerable position, coming to you to seek representation. If you get off on the wrong foot or simply have a personality clash, you may want to reconsider taking on that client. While Bell feels that he gets along with most people and this is not an issue he’s frequently had, there have been occasions where he recognized there could be potential concerns in personalities going forward and that the potential client might be better represented by someone else. Recognizing when you aren’t on the same page as a potential client is crucial. The last thing you need in a new client is one who fights you on your approach to the case, your legal bills, or the length of time it may take for their case to come to fruition.

If you choose to take on clients even though you know from their initial interview that you won’t get along with them, you risk numerous roadblocks and headaches on the journey of their case. And if you get a feeling from the get-go that there may be issues with a client paying you down the road, take a step back and reconsider whether this case is really worth it. Bell stresses that these issues are multifold: You face discharging the client, dealing with a potential charging lien, and never being reimbursed for your time—not to mention losing out on the money you had hoped to earn.

One of the most interesting pieces of advice Bell gave was to consider the relationships you have with your preexisting clients. Was this potential client referred to you by a long-standing, preexisting client? You may be more willing to take on a new client if it means keeping a preexisting client happy.

Moving Forward

It’s all too tempting to accept every client who walks in the door, but you must carefully consider all the variables. Make sure you have the time necessary to devote not just to your new client but also to your preexisting clients. Understand your limits regarding the areas of law in which you feel competent to represent new clients. Be certain that you can work with this client over what could be a long process. Perhaps most importantly, decide whether the likelihood of success and the possible monetary reward justify the probable costs. And make sure that you convey that information to the potential client so there are no surprises—don’t let your new client be shocked by your bill, and don’t let yourself be shocked when your new client refuses to pay it. Hiring an attorney is an expensive proposition for clients, but so was our decision to go to law school and set up shop as a lawyer to take their case.

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Alexandra Graves

Law Office of Bell & Bell

Alexandra Graves is based in Ocala, Florida, and works remotely as an associate attorney for the Law Office of Bell & Bell. She primarily practices in the areas of trusts and estates, contract law, and equine law; however, she sees a bit of everything working for a general practitioner.