February 28, 2017 article

The Decision to Turn Away a Client

By Elizabeth M. Miller

For a solo or small firm practitioner, a well-developed marketing strategy is vital to the firm’s survival. When the marketing strategy produces results, potential clients are calling to schedule a consultations and retain you to represent them. Entering into a retainer agreement there is the implied understanding that you will zealously represent the client’s best interests—no matter what. 

Right now you are thinking, "Who would ever make the decision to turn away a client?" And now maybe you are thinking, "I’ll take that client!" Not so fast.

Every client is not the perfect client. The client consult is a two-way street of the client interviewing you to decide whether they want to hire you, and you interviewing them to see if you want to take them on as a client.

There have been times that attorneys I have worked with have taken on clients where I knew something was not quite right. The warning signs were obvious to me that this client was going to be a problem on many levels. But when a client sits in front of you waving a retainer fee and the payroll or rent needs to be paid, sometimes it’s easier to overlook the warning signs then turn the client—and their retainer fee—away. You think to yourself that with your lawyer skills and people skills you will be able to manage the situation and the client’s expectations. Everything will be just fine, right? Wrong.

There are some warning signs that potential clients may be more trouble than the retainer fee is worth, and the best decision might be to turn the client away:

  1. The client tells you about the problems he or she had with their previous attorney or has had more than one previous attorney, and the attorney-client relationship broke down because of something the lawyer supposedly did.
  2. The client wants you to do something you consider unethical or a violation of bar rules.  
  3. The client tells you that they have been “lawyer shopping” and have talked to five or more attorneys, none of whom would accept the representation.  
  4. During the consultation while explaining their case, the client is unwilling to hear the advice you are giving or argues the law with you.
  5. The client tells you that they are not worried about how much you will charge to handle their case. The likelihood here is that you are going to have trouble getting paid and the upfront retainer may be all the fees you ever see. People who don’t worry about how much something costs usually are slow payers or non-payers. Even clients who are not hurting financially want to know how much you will charge to represent them.
  6. You and the client don’t seem to click. Personality conflicts that are obvious during a consultation will magnify exponentially during representation.

All of the above are warning signs that there may be a problem representing this client, and although difficult it may be to turn what you think is a paying client away, it is probably a good business decision for your firm. The negativity of representing a difficult client will impact you, your staff, and indirectly the work for other clients. The stress and time involved in representing a difficult client regardless of their ability to pay will be counter-productive financially and emotionally.


Elizabeth M. Miller is an independent/contract law firm administrator in Tampa, Florida.

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