How to Choose the Right Client

 In Georgia State Bar Grievances

5 types of problem clients, and how to deal with them.

After writing the last article series about finding the right lawyer, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss finding the right clients – specifically identifying and dealing with problem clients. First, let’s all agree that 99% of all clients are perfect partners who understand how to maximize the value of the attorney-client relationship. It’s the 1% that keeps us up at night, and sometimes makes us chuckle.

We’ve all had them – demanding, non-responsive, emotional, or stubborn to the point that they interfere with your ability to provide exceptional legal support. And if you can’t do your job, you may end up facing a claim, grievance or complaint later on. It’s best to identify potential problem clients early, while they are still prospects, or disengage quickly (without compromising their rights or interests) if you have already entered into an attorney-client relationship.pcalaw

Five categories of problem clients

  1. Tire-Kickers – These perpetual shoppers will keep coming back for more information without actually making a decision to engage your services. Whether they are really researching options or just looking for free advice, they are never quite ready to sign on. During representation, this uncertainty can lead to additional problems.
  2. Cowboys – Charge! These clients may or may not listen to advice before acting, often getting in more trouble while you follow behind trying to clean up the mess. Unlike the Lone Ranger, they don’t wear masks, but you will most certainly be the bad guy when something does not go their way.
  3. Ostriches – The opposite of Cowboys, these clients subscribe to the theory that if you don’t tell and no one knows, there’s no problem. Corporate problem clients often fall under this category, trying to avoid any negative publicity that may impact earnings or stock price. Ostriches sometimes fail to disclose critical information, but when something goes wrong will shift blame to the lawyer even though they withheld that information.
  4. Micromanagers – This client can probably quote all the old Matlock episodes, and wants to be involved in every single decision. Hourly updates and daily status meetings are required for every matter. Micromanagers can distract you from important issues and other clients, thereby reducing your effective billing rate.
  5. Scope-creepers – Didn’t you say you were also going to…? This client continues to press for just one more answer, action, or step, especially in fixed-cost matters. You can get in a lot of trouble here if you’re not careful from the very beginning.


Dealing with problem clients – react quickly!

As Kenny Rogers said, “You’ve got to know when to hold up…know when to fold up.” That same idea applies to problem clients. Here is some advice for effectively and efficiently dealing with them:

  • Go with your gut. You’re a professional, after all. Trying to train a client is like trying to change your spouse – nearly impossible.
  • React quickly. The longer you wait, the more hassle you’ll have when you finally break away. Don’t be afraid to take the hit now. The threats of retaliation and retribution will only get worse.
  • Keep your ego in check. Problem clients will sometimes play competitors against each other. Don’t succumb just to win the business. If you make a wise decision, you can smile later when you realize the fun in store for your competitor.
  • Tightly manage expectations. There are times when you have no choice but to work with a problem client. Carefully outline expectations in the engagement letter, document everything in writing, send via email, and point out where the client isn’t performing to expectations.
  • Use disengagement and non-engagement letters. I talk about these all the time, but it’s critical that problem clients understand when a relationship has ended, or that a relationship will not begin. The important point to remember is to terminate the relationship cleanly and, in some cases, begin the malpractice statute of limitations clock ticking. 

Regardless of how carefully we screen prospective clients, we all run into a problem client situation once in a while. Moving quickly to address the situation will save you a lot of hassle, and allow you to focus on the 99% of clients that we have the pleasure to serve.

Do you have any war stories, or your own categories of problem clients? Please let me know and I’ll add them to our list.

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