We all need clients to make our practices run. However, not all clients are created equal. Everyone has one or more problem clients. Everyone has one or more clients or cases which we regret having taken. Maybe it’s a client who doesn’t pay your bill when you send it out. Maybe it’s a client who calls multiple times each day. Maybe there’s no way to win the case or make the client happy. The trick is to identify what makes a problem client and, “just say no.” It is a skill to learning when and how to handle declining clients.
Who are “problem” clients?
Take a few minutes and examine your current clients. Whose case do you regret taking? Think back to past clients who you still wish you never represented. Try to find a common thread with these clients. No matter what your practice area, there are certain characteristics which should raise your suspicion.
First, be wary of clients who have fired their past attorney and want you to handle their case. There are bad lawyers out there and those who deserve to be fired. But, a disproportionate number of clients who want to fire their current lawyer tend to become problem clients. Are you the third or fourth lawyer they have hired? The odds of having three poor lawyers is slim. Always screen clients who want to switch lawyers more carefully than other clients.
There are some clients who you know are going to be difficult, but you tell yourself, “I can handle this client.” Resist this temptation. It is better to decline the case when you know at the outset that the client will be difficult, but you feel you can deal with them. While you may have the skill to deal with such a client, these clients have a greater likelihood to turn out poorly.
Resist taking everyone who calls your office
The first step in avoiding problem clients is to resist the temptation to take every case which comes your way. There are many reasons why you may disregard this advice, but you must change your mentality. Problem clients drastically take away from your ability to focus on the clients or cases which will make you money. It is better to decline a case prior to becoming involved than withdraw.
How to say no
Declining a case is a skill which must be learned and practiced. You can decline a case, and if done properly, the client may end up being a good source of future business. You should be polite and offer an explanation as to why you are declining the case. You can always find a credible and face-saving way to decline a case. This doesn’t mean you have to be brutally honest with them, (“I’m declining your case because you have filed an ethical complaint against every lawyer who has represented you”), but treat them with respect. They will appreciate that.
Often times, a client will have spoken to other lawyers who have declined their case. When I speak to a potential medical malpractice client, I can usually tell that they have spoken to other lawyers. They tend to tell their stories in such a way to minimize the problems in their cases which other lawyers have told them about. But, by explaining your reason for declining the case, and making them feel good despite your declining them, it can pay dividends.
What to do with a problem client?
Try not to let a client become a problem. Set firm rules and make sure they have realistic expectations. Some clients aren’t problems right away (you did a good job screening and declining cases, right?). You will need to be firm with some clients or they will walk all over you. I am sure you know what I mean. Stop the abusive behavior of a client the first time it happens or it will get worse.
Address the problem as soon as it occurs. Oftentimes it is your staff who are on the front lines and are the first to recognize the signs. Encourage your staff to communicate with you concerning problematic client behavior, but it is up to you as the lawyer to address it.
Know when to cut your losses
You disregarded your gut feeling and took a problem client or maybe you didn’t realize they were going to be a problem. You must know when to terminate representation. Once again, it is better to have not taken the case, but when necessary, withdraw. There are procedural and ethical concerns any time you withdraw, but withdraw you must. Problem clients don’t get better. Problem clients make you lose sleep or cause ulcers or other health problems. You have enough stress being a lawyer, you do not need the added stress of a difficult client.
Just as you must resist the temptation to take every client, you must periodically review your clients and cases and drop those which are causing you undue stress. Whenever I withdraw from a case, I accord the client the same respect and explanation as when I decline a case. Also, withdraw as early as possible in a matter. There is a time in many cases where you reach the point of no return and you must continue until resolution. Try not to reach that point.
Take a look in the mirror
You must make an honest assessment of why a client has become a problem. Not all problem clients are problem clients. Have you or your staff done anything which has made this client difficult? None of us are perfect and none of us have perfect staff members. If you have in any way contributed to the client’s dissatisfaction, take responsibility and fix it.
It is impossible to have all perfect clients, but you do have control over who you accept for representation. Exercise this power wisely and you will have a much happier practice.