Attorneys typically place a lot of focus on attracting and securing new clients, but not every client is a good match for your law firm. Unreasonable expectations and shaky finances can be warning signs for future conflicts, so it’s important not to ignore them. Though it can be difficult to turn business away, especially under circumstances where finances are strained, the wrong client can bring about unnecessary headaches and cause serious problems. Successful attorneys know that some matters are simply not worth the trouble, regardless of how large the fee.
A comprehensive prescreening process helps firms evaluate prospects before they become clients. With the right questions and considerations, attorneys can conduct a detailed analysis before committing the firm’s services to a client.
This post will provide five valuable points for consideration that should be part of every law firm prescreening process:
#1 The Scope of the Matter
This is usually the easiest aspect of prescreening. Does the client’s matter fall under the scope and capacity of your law firm’s service offerings? While this is often a simple yes or no inquiry, it may require a more detailed analysis. For instance, it may be a practice area that you have previously tackled, but one that you or a firm member is interested in pursuing. Under another scenario, the matter may fall within your firm’s practice area but you lack the resources to adequately handle it.
When examining this aspect of the prescreening process, attorneys must make an honest assessment about the firm’s ability and capacity for the case. This includes available time, resources, and necessary expertise. Maybe you have a large matter that is concluding soon, so you can take the matter in the coming months if the client is able to wait. Maybe you have an of counsel who can bring significant expertise within the needed practice area.
Much is at stake when you take on a new matter. Inadequate representation can damage your firm, blemish your reputation, and even land your practice in trouble with the state bar. If you do not feel comfortable with a potential matter, don’t ignore your intuition. The best course of action may be a polite refusal.
#2 Previous Lawyer Participation
While former representation by another attorney is not an automatic deal breaker, it can provide some insight into the experience of working with the client. If a prospect comes to you after having one or more previous attorneys, it may indicate that the client is difficult to work with, fails to take professional advice, or has unreasonable expectations.
Ask the prospect why they are seeking to change attorneys and listen closely to their responses for signs of uncooperativeness or irrational demands. Also consider contacting the former attorney or attorneys to inquire about their experience with the client. Think about both sides and err on the side of caution.
A related point for consideration is the number of attorneys the client has contacted about the case prior to contacting your law office. Yes, it is reasonable to do some “shopping around” before choosing legal representation, but a large number of inquiries may signify a problem. Ask the client why they chose not to work with the other attorneys. Was it based on personality, professional merits, or some other factor? You may even consider contacting the other lawyers to learn the reasons why they refused to provide representation.
#3 Practical Expectations
Nothing ruins a client relationship faster than unreasonable expectations. When clients want a result that just is not likely or maybe not even legally possible, they can place irrational demands on the attorney. It’s important to have a detailed discussion about expectations during prescreening. Most clients have limited understanding of the law, so they need guidance about the process, including how long it will likely take.
Be brutally honest in your explanation and pay close attention to their response. If they push back against or continuously ignore your expertise, they probably will probably continue that behavior during representation. Respectfully decline in order to avoid the stress and problems this type of client can cause.
#4 Client Trust
This consideration is not about the client’s trust in you; it’s about your trust in the client. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you believe what they are telling you about the facts of the matter?
- Do you feel the need to question the client’s character?
- Does the client’s body language make you feel uncomfortable?
- What is the client’s motivation in this case? Is it revenge or an immoral intention?
If the answers to any of these questions raise red flags, then you may want to think twice about taking on the client’s case. Remember, once taking on a matter, you are obligated to provide the client with your highest level of representation. If trust is an issue, you may have a hard time meeting this expectation. Take apprehension about a client’s integrity as a big flashing “No” sign.
#5 Fee aversion
It’s no secret that legal fees are expensive, and it is perfectly reasonable for clients to voice concerns about the cost of your services. However, if those concerns come across as demanding or insulting, it may be a sign that the client will refuse to pay your invoices. Fee disputes can lead to serious trouble for your firm, including grievance complaints and malpractice accusations. So, you must pay attention to these cues before taking on a new client.
Another aspect for consideration is the client’s ability to pay. Why start a professional relationship with someone who will not be able to compensate your firm for its services? Include income and asset questions within your prescreening questionnaire, so you can analyze their payment capabilities.
The Prescreening Process is Key to Starting Successful Client Relationships
The more you know before taking on a new matter, the better prepared you are to assess whether it is right for your firm. Use the prescreening process to gather the information you need to make informed decisions. Ask the informative questions, really listen to the answers, and (most importantly) pay attention to your intuition to promote the best possible experience for the client and your firm.