Business of Law

Beware of the Problem Client

By Kristin Tyler
February 05, 2019

Attorneys can always see a problem client 20/20 from a mile away —in the rearview mirror.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we were armed with a crystal ball and truth serum during initial client consultations to avoid them at the consultation phase?

It took several years of practicing law for me to develop and fine-tune my “problem client radar.”  If you haven’t forged your own problem client radar yet, I hope this will help you begin to spot a few glaring red flags I wish I had learned earlier in my practice.

First off, any client who has already been through multiple other attorneys needs to be a huge red flag on your radar.  If the potential client is in the midst of litigation and you know you would be replacing current counsel, be sure to ask for the full history of their representation on the matter starting with the very first attorney.  Use your best judgment, but in general, if you would be attorney #6 on a case in less than a year, you probably don’t want to take on the representation.  And, if you are considering taking the representation anyway, ask the potential client if you can discuss the matter with their prior counsel before accepting representation.  If the response is “no,” be wary of what is being hidden from you.

Another potential problem client to keep an eye out for is the know it all client who wants to micromanage the representation.  I once had a client who started to frequently debate my legal analysis of the facts of his case.  A few months into the representation, I found out the client had a child who was in their first year of law school.  Hence, the client clearly knew everything that I knew because he was paying law school tuition bills.  This type of problem client can be hard to spot during initial consultations and it can take weeks - or months - for this type of behavior to surface.  When it does, please resist the urge to send them one of my favorite coffee mugs which says: “Please do not confuse your Google search with my LAW DEGREE.”  Instead, you may want to have a frank discussion with your client about the micromanaging and consider whether the fee is worth the headache.  Remember, withdrawal is always easier at the outset of a case.

If a potential client has unreasonable expectations during the consultation phase, don’t kid yourself into believing that you’ll be able to get those expectations under control later in the representation.  If the client wants you to take legal action that is unprofessional, unethical, or otherwise outside your normal course of any client representation – just say “no.”  No client is worth tarnishing your credibility and reputation, and certainly not worth sanctions or bar action.

From time to time you may encounter a potential client who is emotionally out of control.  This needs to be another warning on your radar.  Perhaps the client is excessively angry or hostile towards opposing parties.  It’s unlikely you’ll be able to temper that rage even with a few wins in the courtroom.  Soon those feelings may get directed at you, making already stressful litigation even more difficult to manage.  Other clients may be overcome with sadness, depression or grief as a result of loss of a loved one or business challenges.  These emotions can present their own unique demands when it comes to logically considering your advice and client control.  There is nothing worse than the emotionally charged client who demands you forge ahead or rejects reasonable settlement offers and then asks you to discount the fees you incurred following their requested course of action.

Any potential client who is so fee sensitive that they balk at the cost of your initial retainer is generally not worthy of becoming a client.  Especially if they show up to the meeting in a luxury automobile with a fancy watch on their wrist.  Know the value of your time and expertise and don’t waiver on these points.  There will be other clients who understand this value and will be willing to pay for your services without complaint.  Having work from non-paying clients that you have to chase for payment is not better than not having work as your time is better spent on client development and other things that matter to you.

These are just a few examples of the long list of potential problem clients.  I’m sure you could add a few of your own examples!  In true lawyer fashion, I am going to close this blog with a disclaimer:  There are exceptions to every rule so as you vet potential clients, be sure to flip on your own radar and use your best judgment.

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