One of the most important skills lawyers must hone is the ability to size up clients and cases. If you’ve allowed disagreeable clients or “dog” files to creep into your practice, you know exactly what I mean.
Evaluate potential new clients based on the seven keys to successful client screening:
Are the client’s goals reasonable under the circumstances? Does a proper legal remedy exist? If you inform the client that the result she is seeking isn’t possible, how does the client respond to this news?
What drives the client? Does he have a “scorched earth,” take no prisoners, sue at all costs mentality? A desire to “get back” at the other party? This person may be difficult to manage, if not to please, and unwilling to compromise.
Past Legal History
What is the client’s history with the law, particularly the court system? Has the client ever filed a lawsuit? Been sued? Had a criminal case? A simple search using the “party name” field in OJCIN will yield results, but these are good questions to ask the client directly. For one, it may be crucial to know if your client has been involved in a similar or related matter in the past. Prior testimony could be relevant (or discovered). For screening purposes, the goal is to rule out red flags. If you discover the client has a record of bringing six unsuccessful civil suits in the last ten years, this may give you pause.
Willingness and Ability to Pay
The client who lacks the funds to pay you up front is very unlikely to come up with the money later. The client who complains about your fee and pays grudgingly is a fee dispute waiting to happen. ‘Nuff said.
This is the most critical screening element in my opinion. How many lawyers has the client spoken to and why? Do you get the sense the client is trying to conflict out the other party? (See Motives, above.) Has more than one lawyer declined to represent the client? Did the client fire her former lawyer? Is the client currently represented, but unhappy?
Getting a second opinion is not necessarily a bad thing. However, if there is a long line of lawyers behind you move on to the next prospect.
Sometimes clients tell us what we want to hear. All the words are right, but the client’s tone is off or he refuses to make eye contact. When nonverbal cues don’t align with the client’s verbal message, something is wrong. Either probe the inconsistency or decline representation.
The ideal client should have a neutral or positive attitude toward the law and the profession. A client who has a chip on her shoulder will be difficult to turn around. Your job is to learn more and weigh for yourself whether this person is someone you want to represent. You may discover the client’s feelings are justifiable. Or it could be the client is playing the “blame game.” If so, this is one queue you don’t want to be in.
More to Learn
Learning the seven keys to successful client screening is only part of the battle. If you want to hone your client and case screening skills, but missed the Client and Case Screening CLE last Wednesday, contact me for information on how to download the written materials. In addition to the 7 Keys to Successful Client Screening, this CLE also addressed:
- Integrating screening into client intake
- Probing clients with 5 must-ask questions
- Learning how to adjust when you take a case beyond your areas of expertise
- Debunking the top 10 excuses for taking a bad case
- Building discipline into the case selection process
- Declining the poorly-matched client
- Preparing effective nonengagement and disengagement letters
- Embracing the lawyer’s Bill of Rights
I anticipate offering this program again in 2017.
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