My last post talked about eliminating bad clients from your practice. But the best way to deal with truly difficult clients is by not taking them on in the first place. That requires that you be able to identify potentially bad clients early – preferably before a retainer is signed.
Create a pre-qualifying process. Think about the bad clients you’ve represented in the past and make a list of the warning signs or red flags that arose during your first conversation or initial consultation. If you can recognize the warning signs in advance, you can stop bad clients before they enter your practice.
To get you started, here are a few bad client warning signs:
Something about the client makes you uncomfortable
Pay attention to what your gut is telling you when you first meet with clients - if your gut tells you the client is not right for you, think twice before agreeing to the representation. I’ve worked with many lawyers who have had a bad feeling about a potential client, but then talked themselves into the representation. If you find yourself making excuses for a client's bad behavior, their inability to listen or follow directions, or other warning signs, STOP!
The client fired their last attorney (or has fired several attorneys)
Although this isn’t always a deal-breaker if the client has just fired one attorney, it does mean you’ll want to do a little digging to find out what the real problem was.
Litigiousness or a history of suing other attorneys
Beware - you could wind up next.
Trust is an important element of the attorney-client relationship. If the client isn’t forthcoming, it may signal that they don’t trust you. This might be overcome after a little more discussion, but if you don’t feel you can trust the client or don’t think they’re telling you the truth (or the whole story), this might be a client to avoid.
Desire to educate you on the law
While it is good for clients to be engaged and interested in their matter, they need to trust your education, judgment and expertise. A client who tries to educate you on the law is signaling that they don’t trust your expertise. They will likely fight you throughout the engagement and chances are that they will be unhappy no matter the outcome.
Another form of this kind of client is the client who claims their brother in law, their neighbor or their best friend had the same legal issue and it was resolved faster, less expensively or in a different manner than you are advising – even if they were in another state in which the law was different. This second-guessing is another signal of distrust.
Promises of additional work or contacts
Clients who want to negotiate a discount in exchange for additional work from them in the future or for contacts they can introduce you to for additional work may simply be attempting to disguise their unwillingness or inability to pay for your services. Often, this additional work does not appear – or if it does, the contacts they refer also want a discount.
The client downplays their matter
When clients describe their matter with terms like, “I just need a simple…” “I only need you to write a demand letter…” “This should be a quick project…,” those matters are bound to snowball or become more complicated. If you consider taking on this kind of client, be sure that you are exceptionally clear about scope and fee before the retainer agreement is signed to avoid scope creep, and be sure that you would be willing to take on the matter if it were much more complicated than described.
Too much focus on fees
When clients are overly concerned about the fee or they ask about the fee before you even begin to discuss their legal problem, they will continue to be more concerned with your fees and the bill than the quality of the legal work you are providing.
Clients with unrealistic expectations for outcome, especially if they are on a limited budget or are in a rush, are likely to be unhappy even with stellar legal representation. While it isn’t uncommon for clients to misunderstand the law or to have high expectations, if your initial conversation isn’t successful in managing or tempering those expectations, you’re opening yourself up for problems later by taking on the client.
When a client comes to you at the last minute or needs something in a rush, that client is signaling to you that they are generally unprepared, demanding, or otherwise difficult. Clients who wait until the last minute to seek a lawyer’s advice will likely be less than responsive to your requests and less than cooperative in providing documents and information you need for their legal matter. If you decide to work with them anyway, consider charging higher fees as a result of the time limitations.
Your client is your partner in the representation and you can’t do the best job for them if they don’t cooperate. Unreliability comes in many forms – not returning calls, failure to keep appointments, arriving late, not bringing documents or information requested, giving retainer checks that bounce. This behavior will only get worse as the representation progresses.
Consider putting a statement in your retainer agreement that the retainer does not go into effect and work will not commence until the client’s check clears. If the check does not clear in a certain amount of time, send a non-representation letter.
Additional Pre-Screening Elements
In addition to your list of warning signs, your pre-qualifying process might include some elements that help you to determine how committed the client is to the process, how much value they place on your services and how willing they are to pay for them. For example, you may want to spend a few minutes on the telephone or require clients to complete an intake form or questionnaire before they come to your office for an initial consultation. Clients who fail to complete the form may not be serious about their matter or may be uncooperative in the future.
You may also require up-front payment for your initial consultation. This payment can be applied towards the work for any client who ultimately retains you, but it ensures that potential clients understand that there is value in speaking with you, even if they don’t decide to hire you. You can always decide to refuse or refund the payment when you deem it appropriate.
Turning away potentially problematic clients may be the best thing you do for your practice this year.
Are there any warning signs I've missed? Let me know in the comments!