Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Just Say No. Know When to Turn Down a Case


This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Accommodation Work. Any Questions?

Overall, the 1980s taught Americans many bad life lessons. We now know that perhaps Gordon Gecco was wrong when he said greed was good. Shoulder pads, Flock of Seagull haircuts and MC Hammer pants have proven to be poor style choices. And your dream of spending the night at the Neverland Ranch with Michael Jackson ? It's probably better that it never came true. Of course, not all the advice given in that magical decade was bad. The band Poison warned us that Every Rose Has It's Thorn preventing thousands of floral related injuries. Madonna's Crazy For You brought attention to the problem of pollution as we looked at her through the smokey air. Couldn't you feel the weight of her stare? Wham! taught us to wake up to the horrors of a looming mortgage crisis. (Of course, I could be a little off in my interpretation of Wake Me Up Before You Go Go). Of all the lessons I learned in the 80s, the most important one was probably "Just Say No."

I first heard this phrase from Nancy Reagan on an episode of Different Strokes. No is a simple little word that can often be hard to say to a client. As lawyers, we are faced with the task of choosing which matters to accept. An improper choice can have a negative impact on your practice and your sanity. I like to think of potential cases in two basic categories. 

The first is the "sunshine" case. These are the cases that can help grow your practice. They generate revenue and lead to future referrals. These clients are usually pleasant, low maintenance and give you the opportunity to do your job. The other category is the "black hole" case. Black holes are regions of space in which the gravitational field is so powerful, nothing can escape it's pull. Not even light. These are the cases that try men's souls. They suck your energy. They are the ones you should reject. It's as easy as saying no. 

Whether it is the Polish "nie", the Russian "nyet", the French "non", or the German "nein" you can almost feel the stress leaving your body when you say no. Heck, you can even say it in Klingon. (Editors Note: According to my consistently single friend, no in Klingon is ghobe'). So without further adieu, here is my guide on when to say no.
  1. The Client Gives You the Heebie Geebies. Do you ever get a funny feeling about a client when you first meet? A few years ago I read an article by attorney Norm Pattis where he discussed something he called the "Heebie Geebie Test". It was basically a discussion of that "spider sense" tingling that lawyers get telling them that the prospective client sitting across from their desk is well...maybe a little nuts. The word of advice given was to follow your instinct. If something doesn't seem right, it will not bode well for you to take the case. As a freshly minted attorney, I was under the mindset that this was hogwash advice. If a client was willing to pay, how hard would it be to deal with the occasional Napolean complex. I have since seen the error of my ways. You will surely spend more time dealing with unreasonable demands. Time that could better be spent on your more serious workload. I usually try to observe how they treat my support staff. If they are rude, I often turn down the case.
  1. The Client Had Several Attorneys Before You. Take a hint. This one shouldn't have to hit you over the head. Chances are the client is difficult to deal with. Check with previous attorneys before you decide to take the case. Did the client not pay his bills? Did he constantly call and make unannounced visits to the previous office? Did he kidnap his former lawyer's dog? If the case seems to good to be true, make sure you are getting the full story
  2. You're Only Doing the Case to be Nice or as a Favor to a Family Member. Accommodation work has it's place. Sure it's nice to help someone out once in awhile. Sometimes karma will even reward you for it. One of our biggest settlements came as the result of a referral from an elderly client who I did pro bono work for. I prepared her will for a plate of cookies. Her subsequent referral actually led to a case that paid for our operating expenses for a year. Before you go Mother Teresa on me, please be aware that the opposite is usually true. Don't volunteer your services if you cannot commit the time to complete the task. Even filling out a form can open the flood gates to a constant stream of follow up phone calls and visits seeking advice on what to do next. If you are doing a case pro bono, some client may discount the worth of your efforts. In some scenarios, you will begin resenting the client and will be tempted to ignore calls. If it is a family member, you will begin dreading family events. The client, on the other hand, may consider your discussions as the establishment of an attorney-client relationship. Ultimately, they will grieve you. You will eventually lose your law license along with your will to practice. Your spouse will leave you as you sit at home watching reruns of the Price is Right. Your spouse will take your dog and all of your stuff. You will be left with your Engelbert Humperdink cassette tape collection, an old toaster, some bitter memories and a few dishes. I've seen it happen a million times
  3. The Client Does Research for You. These clients can be difficult. At the risk of offending some of my client base, they are often engineers or are some other type of analytical thinker. They tend to think they are smarter than you and simply lack the proper license to do the work themselves. They check on your legal advice with other lawyers. They scrounge internet chat rooms and newspaper articles for information. They bring charts, graphs, photos, and tide measurements for minor infractions and simple divorces. If the client is incarcerated, they tend to listen to the advice of jail house lawyers. They question your recommendations because Bubba in cell block D says you're wrong. Well, if Bubba is so smart, why is he in jail with you
  4. The Client is Angry. Does the client seem to have too much pent up frustration about his matter. Does he mention firearms? Does he think the world is out to get him? These are the letter writers. They write the mayor, senators, the president, Oprah...to complain about the neighbor's barking poodle. They can easily turn their rage on you as a substitute.
  5. The Client Comes in Wearing a Hat Made of Aluminum Foil and An Assortment of Wind Chimes. Do yourself a favor. Take a moment before you accept the case.
To help you out here is how to say no in 520 languages and dialects. One of these should be a good fit.

5 comments:

dominique said...

I can't believe no-one has commented on this. Thanks for restating maxims which are easy to forget in the struggle to survive a crappy economy. Good post!

Irene Olszewski said...

It's ironic that we should all know this intuitively ... but there are those moments when, as Dominique mentioned, that "crappy economy" clouds our judgment. There are other reasons, of course, that we take on the wrong clients. Hopefully we learn from those mistakes. I'm going to tape this one to my monitor and re-read it before I type that next engagement letter! Thanks for a great post.

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice but it assumes that one has the luxury of choice.

For many solo practitioners the reality is that whomever/whatever walks through the door is their next client.

While that may be a form of Russian roulette, it is often the only viable method of economic survival.

Often, the negative traits you mention are not apparent in the client until the case has progressed substantially and withdrawal of representation may not be an alternative.

After avoiding many close calls over 30 years of practice, I finally tripped over a referral that became the client from hell, or beyond hell, further down than hell, somewhere presently undefined.

The consequences of this client's acts have been so detrimental over the past seven years that the courts have finally adopted a cynical view of his claims.

Sameena said...

Great article! Very cathartic in many ways.

But I also agree with Anonymous at 9.39Am above. sometimes it takes the difficult clients some time to show their difficult side. Plus as a solo, I feel his pain - its hard to say no when you are struggling to keep a roof over your head. The oversupply of lawyers doesn't help either.

But coming back to your article, Client #5 could be Laga Gaga and would you seriously want to turn down her millions? j/k

George said...

I really enjoy your take on things, all of these people exist, you nailed them exactly.