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 Her former lawyer had withdrawn from the case, and she was about to go over the edge because she was close to losing her home and her child.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.
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.
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