Don’t Take The Case: Problem Client Identification

I got to thinking yesterday about problem clients.

Maybe it was just on my mind, maybe it was the client who sent a four page diatribe about the status of their cases with me, maybe it was the fact that we were out of coffee that morning and I couldn’t find my cigarettes.  Whatever the case may be, I found myself mid-morning with my head in my hands as I furiously chewed on pen caps and muttered things about fleeing to Mexico and joining a less stressful and more profitable profession.

Like running drugs for a cartel.

Every lawyer knows the “problem client.”  They come in the door with their litigation strategy and goals already set in stone.  They want you to work a miracle on their budget, which is generally not remotely realistic.  They demand constant updates, or better yet, have some internal schedule for when updates should be provided based on the phases of the moon but funnily enough don’t see fit to tell you about it.

My personal favorites are The Junior Lawyer and the Speed Demon.

The Junior Lawyer, one of which I’m currently dealing with, views you as little more than a paper shuffler with a degree.  They’ve drafted all of their own legal documents in the past and, based on their great knowledge of Google, are convinced they know what’s happening.  Emails from The Junior Lawyer tend to contain links to or Justia, and they insist that because a California court held that way once in 1899, it should be binding precedent on your 2016 Maine case.  In the eyes of The Junior Lawyer, your only role is to distill their legal genius into pleading format and sign your name to the document.

Speed Demon is the opposite of The Junior Lawyer in that Speed Demon doesn’t do any research.  Speed Demon instead doesn’t care how you get things done, just so long as you get it done now.   Speed Demon doesn’t give a shit that the normal filing-to-trial timeframe is nine months to a year right now.  Speed Demon doesn’t give a shit that opposing counsel gets thirty days to respond to discovery.  Speed Demon could care less that the absolute worst thing you can do is try to pressure the court into issuing an order faster.  Speed Demon has shit to do, and wants you to make it faster than a teenage boy on prom night.

The easiest way to deal with these clients is to choke down the boiling rage, resist the urge to scream at them, and take a firm hand in your representation.  However, even when properly chagrined by you finding your balls and chewing their asses out, problem clients will always eventually return to their old ways.  The bigger horror is that, if you fire them, the odds are about 50/50 that they’ll leave a bad review or file a baseless Bar complaint simply because whatever legal woes they encounter have to be your fault.  Let’s face it, if these assholes were good at accepting personal responsibility they wouldn’t be in your office in the first place.

The truly easiest way to handle them is to learn to identify them and then either pass on the case or, if you’re feeling chancy, lay down firm rules of representation.  The problem is how to identify a problem client when they walk in your door, because, like dogshit in high grass, you tend to find the problem only after you put your foot right in it.

So, in the spirit of generosity and in direct conflict with my desire to watch others suffer, here are a few red flags to look for:

You aren’t their first.

There are two times you should be worried about not being someone’s first: when you aren’t sure who the daddy is, and when you’re undertaking representation.  The fact is, most lawyers can handle most cases.  If a potential client is coming to you after firing their prior lawyer, maybe the problem was the lawyer…maybe.  However, if they want you to be the third lawyer they’ve hired for the case, the client is the issue.

Every other lawyer is an idiot.

This goes hand-in-hand with number 1.  If the reason a client is in the situation they’re in is “the last lawyer fucked it up,” be doubtful.  Clients are far more likely to fuck up a case than a lawyer.  A good safeguard?  Ask for permission to speak to their prior counsel first to get the story.

They want a firm estimate of cost.

I bill by the hour, and everybody always asks “What’s the most this will cost me?”  If they refuse to take “it depends” as an answer and push for a hard number in writing, consider passing on the representation.  Clients that demand to know the exact amount they’ll spend on a case and don’t want to accept that costs may increase past an estimate based on the nature of the matter are going to be hell to get payment from.

Their case is worth millions.

“This case will make us both rich!”  I hate that fucking phrase.  These are clients who overvalue their claims, and they will be a fucking nightmare.  If the client seems stuck on a number they have in mind, your options are to manage expectations, pass on representation, or deal with the unholy nightmare that will be making the client come to Jesus at settlement time.

Constant communication.

Some clients are fucking nannies, and they will make your life a nightmare.  You’ll get daily phone calls and emails on the case.  They’ll want to use keywords in the consult like “Will you pursue my claim aggressively” and “I need regular updates.”  If you take this case, you need to be certain they understand the following key phrase: “One of us is a lawyer, and how to pursue your claim is a decision I make after consulting with you.  Also, it is not my standard practice to provide updates more than X times a month or when there is a development.  If you want updates more frequently, let’s talk about how often those need to be.”

You have to drag shit out of them.

I tell clients “I can handle damn near anything if I know about it in advance.  I can’t do shit if the first time I hear about something is in front of a judge.”  These are the clients that are obviously hiding something, even when asked directly.  I guarantee you, nine times out of ten it is something that hurts their case and is probably something another lawyer told them would make the case harder or damn near impossible.  They’re keeping it from you so you’ll undertake representation.  If you have to handle this type of client, cut through the bullshit fast and just tell them “I’m being paid to believe you, and I still don’t think you’re telling me everything.  If you aren’t being honest, I can’t help you.”

The gut feeling.

Look, some people just feel off, like that Uncle who wanted to have sleepovers in your room.  You’ll definitely get this vibe from a client, either because they speak in “hypotheticals” (by the way, asshole, we’re lawyers and we know it wasn’t your “friend”) or you’re pretty sure they’ll perjure themselves.  Dig a bit, and remember that while it’s the client’s case, it’s your reputation.  As a mentor once told me, you shouldn’t take any case where the client will drag you into the mud with them.

None of these flags can’t be overcome with a little directness and maintaining control of the client and the case.  But you have to take control of the case and client early and maintain it throughout.  If you consistently want to fill a bathtub and hold your client’s head under the water until the last bubble comes up and goes “pop,” you aren’t going to be effective counsel for them. Remember, the lawyer drives the fucking car, the client sits in the back like Miss Daisy and puts their trust in you.  They pick the destination, you determine the route.  Full stop, end discussion.  Sometimes you ask them which route they want you to take, but you can’t cede control of the case to a client.  Or, of course, you can avoid the headache altogether and not take the case.  But who the fuck am I kidding, right?  We’re all thirsty for fees, so we will.  But that’s okay too, because dealing with problem clients is a right of passage for every lawyer.

Just don’t kill them.

At least not until their bill is paid.


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