WRA 12/10/09: Finding out who’s naughty and nice

It’s the time of year for holiday specials, and last night’s offering was Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.  And while I enjoyed the story and the theme, I was dumbfounded when I realized that there’s a bit of a link between Santa and client development!  If you remember the lyrics to the song, you’ll know that Santa is “making a list and checking it twice, [and] he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”  And we all know that Santa doesn’t reward the naughty.

Do you reward naughty potential clients by letting them hire you?  Just about every lawyer has had the truly awful client: one who doesn’t pay or pays so slowly that the process is agonizing, one who blocks your efforts to get information you need to handle the representation, one who’s routinely rude or unduly demanding or critical, and so on.  Unfortunately, naughty clients come in a lot of flavors.  The good news is that you can avoid many of them if you know what to watch for during your initial conversations.  A few red flags:

  • You’re the third or fourth lawyer this person has consulted or (worse yet) hired on this, or a closely related, matter.  Clients fire lawyers for good reasons sometimes, but you should explore to find out what went wrong.  Trust your gut as you listen to the explanation.
  • The potential client balks at your fee.  As I discussed with a client yesterday, a negative reaction to your fee may be sticker shock, or it could be a sign that the potential client isn’t going to value your services and will argue every step of the way.  Listen carefully.
  • The potential client misses the first appointment, is very late for it, or arrives unprepared.  This isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker because, as we all know, sometimes life interrupts the best-laid plans.  But pay attention.  As with dating, the behavior you see early is likely to be the best behavior you’ll see in a representation.
  • The potential client seems to have unrealistic expectations and is unwilling to hear a contrary point of view.  Clients often expect a more favorable result than their lawyer.  If you explain counterveling considerations that make a matter less certain or less favorable and hit a brick wall, think carefully before you proceed.
  • The potential client blames everyone and everything for his or her problems.  Chances are high that you’ll end up on the blame list, and possibly on the wrong end of a malpractice claim or bar complaint.

None of these red flags necessarily means that you shouldn’t accept the matter, but if one arises, you need to listen carefully to what is and isn’t said and to pay attention to non-verbal communication.  And trust your gut.

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