How To Spot a Client That is Likely To Be Trouble

When I first started practicing law, I wish someone had told me how to spot a client that was likely to be trouble. This is an art form, learned over time, which could have saved me and/or some of my partners substantial time and effort over the course of the last 25 years. And, judging from the sheer number of “Motions to Withdraw” being heard routinely at Motion Calendar, I have come to realize that I am not the only one who has been challenged by this issue. So, I decided to put together a list of things to watch out for, which is by no means inclusive, dispositive or all encompassing. Rather, the list, when taken together, may provide some guidance on the warning signs lawyers may want to consider when taking on a new client or keeping an old one.

1. Warning Sign # 1- The Prospective Client Refuses to Sign the Retainer
This is not a good sign. The retainer is an important part of the attorney-client relationship. A client who refuses to sign the retainer is likely not getting off on the right foot with his or her lawyers.

2. Warning Sign #2 – The Client, Once they Retain you, Questions Every Invoice.
It is normal for a client to question the invoices received from lawyers. After all, legal fees can sometimes be hard to understand. A client who questions a lawyer’s invoice is normal. A client who questions every invoice is not.

3. Warning Sign # 3 – The Client Calls Your Office Every Single Day

There are cases which justify a client contacting his or her lawyer on a single litigation matter every day. Injunction cases. Emergency matters. During trial preparation. However, the average case does not require daily client contact. It is one thing if the lawyer is calling the client every day; it is quite another if the client is calling the lawyer every day.

4. Warning Sign # 4 – The Client is Nasty to Your Staff.
We value our staff. They make our office work effectively. Without them, we could not be as good as we are. We take exception to people (including other lawyers) who are not nice to them.
5. Warning Sign #5 – The Client Routinely Does His or Her Own Research.
I like having clients who think and do their homework. It shows that they are interested in their case. However, a client that does his or own research on every issues suggests that either the client does not trust the lawyer or that the client is focused on the case in an unhealthy manner.

6. Warning Sign #6 – The Client Cannot Accept the Deadlines Provided by the Rules of Procedure and Demands a Faster Resolution.

It is hard for some people to understand that a defendant normally has 20 days to answer. To someone who may be owed money, or who has been wronged in some manner, twenty days may seem like a lifetime (not to mention routine extension requests which are almost always granted). What separates the good clients, from the problematic clients, is that the good clients accept it when you tell them that we have to give the defendants twenty days to answer. The problematic clients cannot accept this and are also more likely to question the fact that the other parties have 30 days to file responses to discovery. A client who argues with you about the deadlines set forth in the rules of civil procedure should either get themselves a seat on the rules committee or find another lawyer.

7. Warning Sign #7 – The Client Sends Threatening Emails to you and Your Staff.
The attorney-client relationship is supposed to be productive and mutually rewarding. When the client starts to send emails that are contentious, and impolite, it is time to start re-evaluating the relationship. Not every client keeps their pinkies elevated. We understand that. However, for those clients whose angst about deadlines, timing, delay and cost become an interference it is time to look hard at the relationship. Today’s nasty email often becomes tomorrow’s problem.

8. Warning Sign #8 – The Client Routinely Shows up at Your Office Unannounced.
Lawyers are schedule and deadline driven, by necessity. A client that comes to your office, routinely unannounced, often interferes with that. Couple that behavior, with those identified above, and you have a recipe for a problem.

The Warning Signs above, taken separately, are often not a cause for concern. Litigation, particularly high stakes litigation, can be stressful. Clients sometimes get stressed, as do their lawyers. The problem comes in when all the warning signs above coalesce into a single person and a single relationship. Lawyers often wait until the situation gets out of hand before filing a Motion to Withdraw or when it becomes too late when the case is on the eve of trial. This is why the attorney-client relationship must be continually evaluated by the lawyer to ensure that is both productive and mutually rewarding.

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