Not all clients are created equal. Great clients will enhance your legal skills, your reputation, and your bottom line. Bad clients can make you question your skills, destroy your reputation, and result in the worst money you have ever made.
Once you have a better understanding of how bad clients can wreck your practice, you will get better at spotting them and avoiding them. And it will be the best money you never made.
Money is Money, Right?
Bad clients have an amazing way of sapping time and energy in ways you cannot bill for. You probably cannot bill a client extra for meeting only in the evenings or on the weekends. You definitely cannot bill a client extra because you have a personality conflict.
Even if you could bill for scheduling issues, you cannot bill for stress.You cannot bill for screaming when you get off the phone. You cannot bill for not sleeping well. You cannot bill for spending an hour talking about why you already wrote off a third of your time and why your bill is reasonable. Talk to any smart attorney and they will tell you that the total cost of a problem client does not add up in the long run.
Bad Clients Can Crowd Out Good Clients
Bad clients are like a virus that spreads throughout your practice. They make you icky and grumpy while you marathon-watch Arrested Development all day in bed.
Bad clients have an amazing way of sucking up more time than they should. That means you will probably turn down good clients because you are so busy dealing with your problem client. Also, the mental fatigue is greater than you realize. When you are in the middle of dealing with a bad client, it can make otherwise good clients seem like bad clients. Bad clients cloud your thinking and mess with your normally rock-solid client evaluation skills.
It Gets Worse Before it Gets Better
Let’s go back to the virus metaphor. When was the last time you started to get sick and magically woke up feeling better the next day? It’s pretty rare. Same thing with bad clients. They usually become much worse before they get better. And when I say “better”, I mean the case ends or you fire them.
You are doing yourself a disservice if you tell yourself “it can only get better” or “it has to get better from here.” Sure, you can cross your fingers and hope they suddenly start responding to phone calls or emails. Maybe the first three appointments they missed truly were emergencies (although I doubt it).
Hopefully, your retainer has a provision for these scenarios. Hopefully, you are not afraid to invoke it and terminate your representation. I am not suggesting you become cut-throat and cut loose every client that is five minutes late to a meeting. But if they no-show, or are two hours late, that is a serious red flag—and a giant flashing sign that there will be more trouble down the road.
The Warning Signs Are Usually Clear
Now that you understand all money is not created equal, you can sharpen your intake skills to avoid bad clients. Over the past five years, I have talked to thousands of potential clients. Without fail, the most important thing I have learned is to trust my gut.
Someone might call with what sounds like the greatest case in the world, but something makes me question the case or the client. Whether it’s during the first meeting, the second meeting, or right before the case implodes, my gut is almost always right. I used to fight it and talk myself into taking cases. Not anymore. If my gut says no, then I say no.
If you are not ready to live and die by your gut, here are some other warning signs that trouble could be brewing down the road:
- Calls with a legal emergency, then waits six days to return your call
- Doesn’t know who you are when you call back because they called sixteen lawyers
- Leaves a message without any specific details, other than they know “it’s a great case” and you need to call back immediately
- Sends four emails with documents before ever talking to you
- Makes an appointment and then no-shows or reschedules repeatedly
- Tells you what the law is or how the law works
- Tries to bargain on your rate or explains why you are too expensive
- Explains they previously hired another attorney but want to give you a shot
- Tells one story over the phone and a completely different one in your office
- Asks too many details about your personal life and explains why you could be great friends and should hang out.
That is not an exhaustive list by any means. If your gut says something is not right, something is probably amiss. That is the perfect opportunity to bounce the case off another attorney and get some feedback. But never try and convince yourself that any client is a good client. It’s not that simple.
Originally published 2014-07-16. Republished 2017-03-24.