It Pays to Be Picky (When it Come to Clients)

Your success in the practice of law may depend upon the clients you decide not to represent as much as the clients that you do decide to represent.
By Linda Oligschlaeger

With all the competition out there for clients today, it is difficult to turn away paying clients, especially in slower economic times or when you are trying to establish a practice. However, your success in the practice of law may depend upon the clients you decide not to represent as much as the clients that you do decide to represent. In other words, you want to be picky about who you take for clients. You'll be investing a lot of time and energy in your clients' legal matter, and you'll want to be certain that it not only is financially rewarding, but that the work is also rewarding, which may depend on your clients' demeanor.

A lawyer that I recently spoke with told me about a situation where he felt sorry for a totally emotionally distraught woman who came to him on Christmas Eve about a divorce. Her former lawyer had withdrawn from the case, and she was about to go over the edge because she was close to losing her home and her child. The lawyer found it hard to refuse this woman and took her as a client only to later have to defend himself when she filed a complaint about him because the case didn't turn out as she had hoped. The lawyer found out later that she was an impossible client who had gone through several other attorneys who simply couldn't get along with her. She truly was emotionally unstable, demanding, and didn't pay her bills. The warning signs were there, but because it was Christmas Eve and he felt sorry for the woman, the lawyer let his emotions overrule trusting his instincts only to find himself with an ungrateful client that stiffed him for his fee.

The initial interview with the prospective client is the best time to weed out those clients who can cause you indigestion and heartburn. But, how do you identify troublesome clients? There are some warning signs, but your own inner voice or intuition may be your best tool. Sometimes this is more crudely referred to as those who don't pass the "sniff test" or simply trusting your "gut feeling". We all have those defensive instincts if we listen to them. Usually, when you ignore them or talk yourself out of listening to the warning signs, you live to regret it.

In some respects the attorney-client relationship is like a marriage. In order for the relationship to work, you must trust each other; you must be able to work together for a mutual interest; your personalities should blend and not clash; you must be able to communicate well with each other; and you both must work at the relationship. Like a marriage, it's important to start out on good footing. Couples that start a marriage with financial problems, who are incompatible, or who cannot communicate with each other, may be headed for failure. The same is true in an attorney-client relationship.

Here are a few of the warning signs about would-be clients that should alert you to use your instincts, and listen to that inner voice. I'm certain that lawyers who have been in practice for a number of years could certainly add to the list, but here are a few to start with.

  • The Bargain Hunter Client. This client is trying to get something (your services) for nothing or nearly nothing. This client is more focused on getting you to negotiate your fee to an unreasonably low level than getting his/her legal needs met. This type of client has probably shopped other lawyers all over town. Because the client is more interested in getting something for nothing, he/she will probably not see the value in your services. No matter how low you reduce your fee, it will not be low enough even though you may obtain a very favorable result.
  • The User Client. This is the client who goes from lawyer to lawyer. If you're the third or fourth lawyer who has represented this client on the same matter, a red flag should go up before your eyes. There is probably something wrong when a client can't seem to get along with many other lawyers. The client may have a legitimate reason to seek a second lawyer, but a third or fourth? If this client has been represented by another lawyer on this matter, you might want to check with the former lawyer to see if the reason the client left was because the bill arrived, or because the client was difficult to work with.
  • The Emotionally Distraught Client. This is the client who likely needs the services of a mental health professional more than a lawyer. Many clients seek out a lawyer because they are facing an emotionally upsetting situation in their life, such as a divorce or failing business. That doesn't mean that you should turn away all clients who are facing difficult situations in their lives. If so, you might have very few clients. But, there are those clients who cause your internal warning device to sound an alarm. If you accept the case of an emotionally distraught client, it's important to refer the client to a mental health professional who can help this person work through any emotional problems while you work on the legal problems. The client is then more likely to accept your counseling. If, however, the client resists your advice to seek assistance, you may have trouble communicating, and your client may not be helpful to you in the pending litigation. Emotionally distraught clients also have trouble remembering important conversations and details.
  • The Let's-End-It-Fast Client. This client wants to cave in to the other side to get the matter over, and when buyer's remorse sets in, it's the lawyer who becomes the target. This could be the divorce client who says, "Give her what she wants and get this over with". He later becomes angry about his diminished financial situation or having to share his future pension, and guess who might take the blame-his lawyer. The opposite can also be true. The passive client may have hopes of reconciliation and wants to agree to a lesser settlement only to become angry later when the ex spouse marries someone else. Why did my lawyer let that happen?
  • The Know-It-All Client. This is the client who had a brother-in-law who had a sister who was a paralegal, or who read all about a similar legal situation on the Internet. This client may have a smattering of legal knowledge-just enough to be dangerous-and insists he/she knows exactly how to handle the case; this client just needs you to make the court appearances. This client can cause a sure case of heartburn by not listening or accepting your advice.
  • The Looking-For-Blood Client. This client is consumed with anger that will certainly stand in the way of any rational or fair result. This type of client wants revenge and the other side to pay with blood and money. Your rational solution will fall on deaf ears. It's nearly impossible to work with someone whose judgment is so clouded with anger. This person's anger can very easily turn on you. If revenge can't be taken out on the other side, you will do.
  • The Pie-In-The-Sky Client. This client has completely unrealistic expectations about possible outcomes of their case. This is the person who finds an ant in the soup at a local restaurant chain and expects to never work another day. When you aren't able to send this client to Lucky Town, dreams will be shattered, and blamed on you.
  • The User Client. These clients are pros, (maybe cons is a better description). They are able to manipulate you by casting themselves in an honorable light and convince you that they terminated their previous lawyer or lawyers for reasons that appear totally valid. Beware! They are wolves in sheep's clothing looking for as much free legal advice and services as they can bleed out of you.
  • The High Maintenance Client. This is the client who needs an excessive amount of handholding. This client will call you at the office nearly every day, or in the evening just when you are about to sit down to dinner with your family. Although you have an obligation to communicate with your clients, you should make it clear to high maintenance clients that you will keep them advised (and keep your word), and it will cost them to continuously call or stop by your office.
  • The Empty Pockets Client. Unless you choose to take the case on a pro bono basis, you still need to meet your payroll and keep the heat on this winter. If you are a bankruptcy attorney, it may be a different situation, but generally clients who have trouble paying their bills will also have trouble paying yours. Of course, it's the lawyer's responsibility to charge a reasonable fee and to clearly communicate to clients, preferably in writing, how they will be charged. It's always important to get a picture of the clients' financial situation at the outset. If their financial situation looks grim, be sure to get your money up front, if you do decide to take their case.
  • The High Roller Client. This is the client who lives on the edge and who engages in shady business practices. If the client exploits others, either for financial or social reasons, chances are you will also be expoited.
  • The It's-Always-Someone-Else's Fault Client. This client blames others for everything, and avoids accepting responsibility for his/her woes. You can bet this person will eventually be blaming you.

When you decline to represent various clients, it's very important to send them a non-engagement letter indicating that you will not be representing them on this matter. If appropriate, it may also be very important to remind them of any issues relating to time limitations.

In reality, many clients may have some of these traits. If you turn them all away, your waiting room will be empty, and you'll be out of business. However, these are traits to be aware of when deciding which clients to invest your time and hard work in. In order to have a good return on your investment of time and energy, it pays to be selective when it comes to clients. It may be an economically sound decision to turn away a client, even if they have the means to pay your bill, when your instincts tell you to be wary. Simply because a client has the means to pay doesn't mean that your bill will get paid; money isn't the only issue. A client who pays your bill, but who makes your life miserable, may not be worth the pain and suffering. Only you can decide.

Although you may be adept at listening to your instincts, there will be times when you aren't able to pick up on these traits in spite of your best efforts. However, it's much easier to turn away a potentially troublesome client at the outset rather than later when you have to withdraw only to find yourself defending a disciplinary complaint, fee dispute, or malpractice claim. It simply pays to be picky, when it comes to clients.

Linda Oligschlaeger served as the Membership Services Director at The Missouri Bar from 1991-2012 where she oversaw the Law Practice Management Information Center.