Picking a Client

I thought it might be helpful to know how lawyers go about picking clients. Or, at least how I go about it. Understanding the beginning of the process might help prepare you for when you have to make a personal, and potentially expensive, decision while under considerable stress.

There is no one way to select clients. For our office, the process has three steps:

  1. The initial contact from the potential client and information gathering to determine if our practice is in the same area of the law as the potential client’s case;
  2. The lawyer’s review of the information to see if the case is a good match with our firm; and
  3. The initial interview.

It is not a screening process; it is a time-saving process. We do not want to waste people’s time, and if we are not a good fit then we try to refer them to another lawyer.

Once past the first two steps we move to the initial interview. An initial interview with a client is like a job interview. It is important to make sure the client knows my background, skills, and approach to their case. It is equally important for me to know those same things from the client. Every client is different, and every case is unique. But, just like picking a lawyer, there are five things to consider when picking a client. They are:

  1. The Parties – Conflict of interest is an overused phrase. Conflict of interest does not mean the lawyer is out. Many times that is the result, but it is not automatic. For our office, the first information we ask is not only the caller’s information but the opposing parties’ information as well. If we had previous contact with the opposing party, we politely tell the caller we are unable to help. We do not state a reason why, which can be frustrating we know, but only that we are not able to help.
  2. Facts of the Case – No one “wins” a family law case. A client may prevail at trial, but getting to that point requires time, considerable expense, and the stress of not knowing what a judge will ultimately rule. While some facts are stronger than others, and it may seem inconceivable a judge would rule against those facts, oftentimes the perception a client has is not mirrored by the judge. When that happens the “sure thing” case turns into a disappointing result. All of that is even more true in the area of family law, and when children are involved it can mean more animosity in dealing with the other parent in the future. Therefore it is absolutely critical for the lawyer to review the facts provided by a new client with some scrutiny and detachment. Sometimes clients struggle with this idea, and do not understand why the lawyer is not upset by the information they are providing. However, that detachment is ultimately to your benefit. It is better to spot the weak aspects of a case at the initial interview than learn them along the way, or (gulp) realizing them for the first time in court. To that end, help your lawyer, and yourself, by being brutally honest with all the facts. My grandma would say “warts and all”. It may be embarrassing, it may be difficult to talk about, but ultimately you will be much better off in the end.
  3. Timeline – News flash: lawyers can be busy. In our office we have a method established so we do not have too many cases at any one time, and so we can give each client the attention they deserve. We know our client’s names, their children’s names, and the facts of their case. To keep that method in place, we tend not to take cases that have immediate hearings set. Granted, that does not apply to newly filed cases, but for the caller on Friday at 4:55 p.m. asking if we can appear on Monday at 9:00 a.m. for a hearing, we generally refer them to other lawyers. The best way to proceed is to be proactive. I know the case may not be something you want to deal with, but the longer you wait to talk to a lawyer the more likely it will be you are not able to retain the lawyer you want.
  4. Fees – Lawyers and trials cost money, and what a lawyer charges for their fees can be a major factor in deciding to retain. Determining if the client can pay those fees, not just to retain but to finish the case, is a consideration. It is possible a judge may order the other side to pay attorney’s fees, and yes, we have had that happen on occasion. Usually, judges deny requests more requests than they grant, and counting on an award of attorney’s fees is a mistake. Both client and lawyer need to be realistic, and we do so as politely as possible to make sure the client can afford what it is they want.
  5. Personality – Again, I saved personality for last because it is the most important. The lawyer needs to keep some distance from the client to remain objective. That said, working with someone who is difficult, is difficult. So, try to be civil, reasonable, and nice. It might be difficult, and being under stress sometimes makes us speak/type before thinking. But making the effort will go a long way towards making the experience more manageable. At the very least, be nice to the lawyer’s staff. I understand that I sometimes need to be the listener when a client needs to rant, and in many cases it is a good thing to get it out. But do not do it to the receptionist or paralegal. It is not their fault, and barking at staff because you are angry about something the other party did is a good way for us to part ways.

So, there you go, all the secrets we use in selecting clients. Hopefully, you can use them to your advantage to help the lawyer understand why she/he would be a fool not to take your case. Thanks for reading.

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