Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Oops, I Did It Again

OOPSDo you seem to have a knack for attracting the wrong clients?

You know the ones I’m talking about: those who monopolize your time, sap your energy and don’t pay their bills.

Problem clients can cripple a practice. To make matters worse, once you’ve signed on as their lawyer it might be difficult – or impossible – to get out.

The solution: avoid getting into sour relationships in the first place through effective client screening.

“If the number of problem clients in your practice is really starting to take its toll, then perhaps the problem isn’t one of making the occasional bad decision,” writes risk manager Mark Bassingwaithe for Solo Practice University. “Perhaps the problem is that you really don’t know how to make a good decision when it comes to client selection.”

Questions For You and Your Client

Bassingwaithe, risk manager for Attorney Liability Protection Society, says client screening begins with a close look at the prospective client, with an eye out for warning signs:

  • Does the prospect have unreasonable expectations about what you can do for them?
  • Are they aggressive or rude?
  • Do they come across as open and honest?
  • Are they forthcoming about the facts, even when unfavorable?
  • Do they seem to have a personal agenda?
  • Do they expect 24/7 access?
  • Do they respect personal and professional boundaries?
  • Have they been represented by other lawyers in the same matter?

And here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you have the necessary experience and expertise to tackle the case?
  • Is it within your comfort zone?
  • Do you have the time to take it on?
  • Does the client seem a good “fit?”
  • Should you refer it out or bring in a specialist?

Time for a Gut Check

After you’ve asked these questions, it’s time to check your gut.

“[A]s a risk manager for a malpractice insurance company, I have heard ‘I should have listened to my gut’ too many times,” writes Bassingwaithe. “Stop with the excuses. Yes, it may look like a great case, but every legal matter comes with a client and if the two of you can’t work together in a healthy and positive way, then be prepared for a bumpy ride. Yes, I know you have bills to pay, but problem clients often demand extra time and attention, turn into collection problems and have a tendency to file disciplinary complaints. Yes, the client really is in desperate shape but, unfortunately, they failed to disclose they had no ability, and sometimes no intention, to pay you.”

Another tip: don’t hire potential. Beware taking on a difficult client in hopes they will change for the better as the case progresses. They won’t. They will only become more difficult.

And remember that even lawyers who have the most effective screening process in the world occasionally find themselves representing a problem client. “It happens,” says Bassingwaithe.

When you wrap up a problem case, give yourself a bit of time to recover. Then take time to review and process what happened. How can you prevent this from happening again?


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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