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How To Identify The Potential Clients You Really Should Say No To

4 min read

How To Identify The Potential Clients You Really Should Say No To

(Updated March 2024)

Everyone makes a wrong decision now and again. Unfortunately, if the wrong decision was agreeing to take on a client that you really should have said no to, life just got a little more complicated. In short, you have likely signed up “a problem client.” When this happens, some attorneys will acknowledge that they made the wrong call and try to get out. Others will simply grin and bear it, vowing to never make that mistake again.

These responses are fine, as long as you’re not dealing with self-described problem clients on a regular basis. If that’s the case, then perhaps the problem isn’t one of making the occasional wrong decision. When it comes to client selection, perhaps the problem is you really don’t know how to make a good decision. If that’s the case, the solution is to learn how to screen prospective clients so you can weed out the ones who will ultimately prove to be problematic.

Effective client screening is an important practice management tool because it enables you to build a successful and healthy practice. It’s all about learning to choose wisely. While there isn’t one right way to do this, the development of a standard set of questions to think about during intake can go a long way in enabling you to make sound business decisions. 

The first step, however, is to stop making the excuses that prevent you from ever starting. Yes, it may look like a great case, but every legal matter comes with a client. If the two of you aren’t able to work together in a healthy and positive way, you’re about to create your own problem. Yes, I know you have bills to pay; but problem clients often demand extra time and attention, they can turn into collection problems, and they have a propensity to file disciplinary complaints should things not turn out as expected. Yes, the client may be desperate for help; but what if they conveniently forget to disclose that they have no ability, and sometimes no intention, of ever paying? You tell me. Are the associated stresses, headaches, write downs and write offs that so often come with problem clients worth it? Personally, I don’t see it.

So, let’s talk about effective client screening. Part of the art of this is in taking a realistic look at the client. Look for the warning signs. Does this person have unrealistic or unreasonable expectations in regard to outcome, expected level of service, or fees and costs? Does the individual come across as aggressive, rude, or untrustworthy? Do they have a personal agenda? Have they provided all the information you need or is obtaining even the basics proving difficult? Is this someone who wants access to you 24/7 because they view their matter as the most important one you have taken on? Will they need lots of hand holding and, if so, are you able to provide that? If they are having a really hard time understanding all that you’re talking about, are you prepared to take the necessary time to educate them in order to allow them to meaningfully participate in the decision-making process? Are they forthright and truthful with you or is their vagueness causing you to question their story? Remember that a case doesn’t get better after your opponent starts picking it apart.

Are they argumentative, confrontational, or unwilling to listen? This suggests role clarity will be a problem. How have they treated your staff? If you don’t know, ask. Intimidating, threatening, or rude behavior is not only an indicator of what’s to come but is also simply not acceptable. Have they provided concise and detailed contact information? If not, you may find them difficult to get a hold of if not completely impossible. Have they come with unreasonable expectations? If they are demanding justice or are looking for a substantial award while having only a modest loss, you’re on notice that they likely will not be happy regardless of the outcome. Answers to questions like these are vitally important because they can help identify which attorney-client relationships are likely to be productive and which are not. 

Sometimes it can be difficult to ask and answer these questions if for no other reason than limited time; but even then, your gut will sometimes seem to be saying no. I will share that as a risk manager for a malpractice insurance company, I have heard “I should have listened to my gut” too many times. Again, remember a client comes with every legal matter you take on. If you find it difficult to listen to your gut, you might consider checking out the prospective client’s social media presence (in an ethically permissible manner) to see if what your gut is telling you is accurate. Why? Because the duties you owe your clients don’t change depending upon how well you can work together individually with any one of them. This is why you always need to choose wisely. 

Also understand that effective client screening goes well beyond just looking at the client. You still need to determine if the potential client can afford your services. You should know whether they have had prior representation or talked with other attorneys prior to contacting you. In addition, you need to look at yourself. Do you have the necessary experience, expertise, and available time the new matter calls for? Are you properly staffed and equipped to take the matter on? Can you meet the legal and emotional needs of the client? You should also consider whether you will be able to work effectively with the potential client. After all, the attorney-client relationship is a two-way street.

Finally, even those who have an effective screening process in place still occasionally find themselves dealing with a problem client. It’s going to happen. Just know that the attorneys who screen well understand that their screening process will always be a work in progress. Here’s what they do that so many others don’t. Once the representation of any problem client has ended, regardless of whether they were able to withdraw or had to ride it out to the end, they will always take a few moments to look for the learning in order to improve their screening process. They will try to determine what they missed during intake thinking about both the client and themselves. Their motivation is to simply try to prevent an unintended repeat of the recent situation from ever happening again because life’s too short as it is. I don’t know about you; but I couldn’t agree more.

Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 600 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.

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