Everyone makes a bad decision now and again. Unfortunately, if the bad 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 will recognize the bad 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 bad decision. Perhaps the problem is you really don’t know how to make a good decision when it comes to client selection. If this sounds a bit like you, the solution is to learn how to screen prospective clients so you can weed out the ones that 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. The first step, however, is to stop making the excuses that prevent you from ever getting started. 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, 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 tendency 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 they have no ability, and sometimes no intention, of ever paying you? 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 such as their contact information 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? As it relates to you and your staff, is the potential client respectful of personal boundaries and professional roles? 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. Remember a client comes with every legal matter you take on. If you start to have a problem listening 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. You also 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 lesson 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.