How To Make A Client Settle- Prepare Them From The Start

Alright, I’ve talked in the past about how clients suck, about how clients are liars, about how clients are righteous motherfuckers, about how clients frustrate and infuriate, etc.  The take away from a lot of this is I don’t have a lot of fuckin’ love for clients in general.  The practice of law would be a wonderful thing if it wasn’t for the mouth-breathers that tend to waltz in the office doors with a bucket of problems and a small bag of pennies to pay with.  However, as clients tend to be an necessary part of me being able to afford things like new socks, I grudgingly tolerate and accept them.

But even I, a certified client-hater, know that nine times out of ten when a lawyer is bitching about a client they’re actually bitching about themselves.  Simply put, clients aren’t always the most intelligent beings on the face of the earth, and therefore a client can be managed if the lawyer sets down expectations early.  Still I hear about it at every bar function: how some low-life shitbird has fucked up their attorney’s day by refusing to settle or demanding a day in court.  They’ll kvetch over how shitty the claim is or how reasonable the offer was, and then, while swilling whiskey, proclaim “My client’s a fucking idiot.”  I have no sympathy in many cases.

You know what?  That’s your fucking fault, man.  That’s a result of shit you did early on and kept fucking doing right up until a settlement offer came in and you, probably correctly, advised that accepting it was the best offer.  However, your client got stars in their eyes and didn’t want to settle now.  They had faith in you, they believed everything you said to them early on, and their confidence has only grown since then.  Why should they take $100,000 or $200,000 when initially you told them they could get $500,000?

So how the fuck did you get in this mess in the first place, and how the fuck can you get out of this mess?  Well, I mean, now you’re only getting out of it by forcing the client to see the reasonableness of a settlement, with a ball bat if necessary.  How can you avoid getting into it in the first place?

By managing their expectations realistically, fuckwit.  

Stop promising potential clients the moon, stars, and a magic blowjob-granting genie.

Alright, so getting a client in the office in the first place can be goddamn traumatizing.  But you managed to do it, you got them in the chair, they’re sitting right across from you and you think they have a case.  Maybe not the best case in the world, but you’ll make a few bucks from it, they’ll make a few bucks from it, and it’s something you can handle.  However, the client thinks this is their road to financial independence from all the bad fucking decisions they have ever made in their life, and have been assured by a cursory google search for unrelated awards on different facts the claim is worth millions of dollars.

What do you do?  If you tell the client the claim is worth far less than they think, they’re going to walk out the door.  They won’t sign your podunk, Sears suit wearing ass for a damn thing.  Maybe they’ll even bad mouth you as the lawyer who “doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”  Besides, any lawyer who talks to them after you is going to say the claim is worth that then settle it anyhow, so why shouldn’t you do the same?

See, asshole, that thought process is why you end up with nightmare cases that always drag on.  There’s a simple phrase you can use to overcome their objections, and I expect each of you to learn to say it in your sleep:

“It’s possible you could get that much, but there’s no way to really peg the value of your claim until all the facts are in.  I’d say your chances of actually getting that amount in full aren’t very high, because I don’t know all the facts and won’t until we do discovery.”

You then immediately proceed to give them a realistic picture of their fucking case, no bullshit, no sparkles, no rainbows.  A straight-forward and confident assessment of the value of their claim, their position, and the possible defenses or counterclaims that can be raised to each.  Don’t squabble over the details, and every time they insist the claim will be worth millions you refer back to the above statement, but this time with some more support because you’re a lawyer, and you will have done several other things, like…

Being able to peg the value from some simple research.

Alright, so did you know there are guides out there which can give you a general idea of what a certain type of claim is worth?  Here’s one from West Legal in relation to Personal Injury.  Plus, if your jurisdiction is anything like mine, you get newsletters and emails from the local bar association with a list of recent awards in it for all these different types of cases!  Isn’t that amazing?  I bet you didn’t know that, because you’re the type of asshole that just deletes that shit without reading it, aren’t you?

Fuck that.  These are resources that you’re being provided with, many times for free or as a benefit of some membership you’ve already paid for.  You don’t have to read through the bullshit about who made partner where or what pro bono service has been performed to assuage the overwhelming guilty of being a foreclosure lawyer.  You can skip all that shit and go right to the section that lists recent awards and judgments.  Really, you should be doing this shit already, because remaining informed is like 95% of your fucking job, but hey, who am I to judge.  I spend time writing this drivel.

Anyhow, you should be reading those little blurbs and bulletins, because they’ll give you a decent idea of how the juries and courts have been coming down in cases that are similar to the one sitting in front of you.  Those will give you a good peg on what the maximum amount a trial is likely to bring in the best possible world for the potential client.  If you have to, reference these in the meeting.

“Look, recently a jury awarded only $250,000 after a trial on a case with very similar facts to this one.  That’s the maximum amount you’re likely to get here, and that’s with all the expense and time of trial, and that’s if the jury decides the same way.  I’ve been doing this a while now, and I can tell you that you can’t predict what a jury will or won’t do.”

Don’t oversell the case.

I had a client recently that told me they believed, from what another attorney had told them, that their case was a “dead bang winner.”  I cringe whenever I hear those words, because my constant refrain is “I don’t give any guarantees, and I don’t say anything that sounds like a guarantee.  It looks like you have a good case, but only on the facts I have in front of me.”

This leads to a sidenote, by the way, that you can use to discredit your competition:  “Look, I can tell you that you’ll definitely win if you want me to, but any attorney who says that is inexperienced or they’re a liar.  There’s no such thing as a case that can’t be lost, and nobody can predict what will happen during a trial or how a court will hold.”

In all honesty, your initial assessment of a case should be an honest and open one.  That same case I referenced above had me looking through the file (they were switching lawyers) and saying “Well, I would have filed for the same amount, but I would never have said that’s a likely collection.  I’m pegging your actual collection at about 30-40% of that amount.  See, here are the defenses they’re going to raise, and here are the counterclaims they’re going to raise, and you have issues with mitigation right of the bat, and…”

You see where I’m going with this?  The guy they had gone to before, who filed a complaint, hadn’t assessed the claim and the possible defenses and didn’t put an accurate value on it.  He told the client “We’ll file for X amount!” and the client ran with that.  By the way, when the answer was filed raising every defense and counterclaim I told them to expect, I got that case.  It settled for 45% of the claimed amount, with an insanely happy client because they were expecting it to be 5% less at most.  Which leads me to my next point.

Lowball the fucking claim.

This sounds like some of that shit you use in negotiations, but use it with a potential client, too.  You don’t tell a client “I expect to recover $750,000 of this $1,000,000 claim” even if you think that would be reasonable.  You range them.  “This could likely get a result of anywhere from $500,000-$700,000, depending on how far it goes and what discovery shows us.”  You’ve built in a $50,000 cushion, and now you don’t have a client who thinks they’re being undersold by the attorney.  If you lead off with “This is a $750,000 claim,” then down the road at $650,000, still a respectable amount, they’re not thinking Hey, I made $650,000!  No, what the client is thinking is What the fuck, I lost $100,000!

This brings up the last point I have:

Remind your clients of this shit after they’re signed.

Clients will get tunnel vision.  They’ll focus on the “high number” that you gave them and disregard the low number.  All of the sudden a range of $500,000-$700,000 that you gave them in the initial consult becomes $700,000 as the case progresses.  The client can, and will, disregard the fact that you told them there were low numbers because they want to believe in the high number.  Believing is good.  Believing is nice.  Believing is fun.  But much like believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, at the end of the whole litigation process the clients will wake up to the fact that the only jolly fat man willing to give them something is you.

So throughout the case, you’ll need to reiterate your initial statement to them.  Don’t be shy to correct the client.  “You said $700,000.”  “No, I said $500,000 to $700,000.  This is in that range.”  Document the fuck out of that number…emails, letters, text messages, phone calls.  Any discussion that regards a potential collection should have the statement of your estimate appended to it, always with the disclaimer “depending on the facts of the case.”

Final Thoughts

Now, because damn near every civil case will settle well before trial, I’m gearing this advice towards settlements and not verdicts.  With verdicts, you need to be clear that you can’t fucking predict a jury, and nobody can fucking predict a jury.  A client who wants a jury trial takes their finances in their own hands.  However, if you’re a hard-bitten son of a bitch like me, this should at least help you in getting a recalcitrant client to agree to settle a claim for a reasonable amount.

And if not, well, you’re in the 10% whose own idiocy isn’t the reason a case that can and should settle is chugging along to trial.  In those circumstances, I hope the cash is either really good, because buddy, a stubborn client is rarely fucking worth it.

-BB