When Should You Decline a Case?

Ever regret taking a case? The initial consultation is as much about vetting the potential client as it is informing and advising them. Despite your confidence that you can handle a case well and despite the client’s ability to pay, a lack of compatibility might require you to decline representation.

What are some of the signs that you should exercise caution before proceeding?

They want to drive I see my job in large part as providing the best possible choices to my client and helping guide them on making informed decisions. Because I focus on one area of law, I can usually map out a plan at the initial consultation and provide a spectrum of possible outcomes and my strategy to pursue the optimal result.

This plan comes from 25 years of experience, but potential clients are sometimes opinionated on what the result should be and how to get there. Not to say I don’t value input, but I would be doing them a disservice by surrendering my professional responsibilities to their guesses and theories. If they want to drive, we are not a fit.

They are perfect-outcome-centric If your relationship with your clients is wholly centered on outcome, remind yourself that except in specific and limited circumstances, you don’t control the outcome of a legal case. You also can’t change their set of facts. If your client will accept nothing less than the result they want, despite your best efforts, you will be blamed for a less than perfect result.

Help your potential client understand the range of possible scenarios and your plan to maximize the outcome. Be honest about where things can go wrong and gauge whether they understand how the process works. Educate them on risk management. There is nothing worse than setting an expectation that doesn’t materialize and then having to explain why. You should never have to walk back a promise. If your realistic talk is too disappointing for them, it may not be a good fit.

They start the conversation with “how much do you charge…” I don’t sell price, I sell confidence that I am going to handle their matter well. Actually, I don’t sell at all. I focus on problem solving, not myself. While money is always relevant, it can’t be bigger than the quality of your services.

Trying to offer the cheapest price tag guarantees financial struggle and there will always be another attorney willing to race you to the bottom. One lesson I learned early in my practice is that the more that money is an issue at the beginning of a relationship, the higher maintenance the relationship will be.

They want you to sell yourself The best professional relationship is built on trust and confidence that you are the right person to handle the job. Questions about your credentials and experience are fair game, but there is a line between setting out your qualifications and becoming a salesperson. Convincing a skeptical client to hire you will eventually lead to finger-pointing and accusations as soon as a case goes south in any way.

You are not the first attorney Yes, attorneys and clients sometimes part ways, but if you see that they have had another attorney who has withdrawn from the case, and especially if you know that attorney to be reputable, you should find out what happened. I once had a relationship that quickly soured (within the same day of being hired). I was the first attorney in the case. Out of curiosity, I checked back a few months later and that person was on their fifth attorney. It was a virtual wasteland of briefcases and wrinkled suits.

They demand your emotional outrage How many times have you heard “I became unhinged and made great decisions…” Like never? Prospective clients are often (understandably) quite upset about the legal predicament in which they find themselves, and sometimes they look to you to share in their anger and indignation.

Be wary when someone interprets your level-headedness as not caring enough about their case. Improper emotional investment can cloud professional judgment and create an unhealthy, manipulative relationship instead of a professional relationship with proper boundaries.

When you’re not the right attorney for them I can think of a number of scenarios that apply. For one, you may feel pressured or compelled to help friends and family in an area of law outside of your experience. I try to limit my advice to helping steer them in the right direction, but I do not take on legal problems unless I am completely comfortable with the area of law and the relationship. Sorry, Grandma. I’ll just goof it up.

You might also be tempted to take a nice fee involving an unfamiliar area of law. Never forget that people are trusting you with very important problems, not to mention you will be inviting stress and worse into your life and career. Be quick to push the temptation away and refer the case out. The more you focus on a narrow area of law, the more proficient you will become and the better you will be able to serve people. The better you serve people, the more work you will get. It’s a long term play, but essential.

Conclusion Understanding your role as their attorney, clear communication from the beginning, and managing expectations are essential to your relationship with your clients. Use the initial meeting to gauge whether you are a good fit and don’t be afraid to decline a case, even if it means giving up that nice fee.

About Richard Lozano

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