When To Say "No": 10 Reasons To Reject Your Clients

August 1999

by Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC

Careful client rejection can make the practice of law easier because you avoid the stress of a difficult client, minimize problems with fee collections or write-offs, and improve office morale by escaping the time and energy consumption caused by unreasonable clients.

Here are 10 considerations when deciding whether to reject a client.

  1. Pay particular attention to clients who have last-minute emergencies or "life-and-death" matters. Unless a firm has sufficient personnel or specializes in crises, this type of client brings inherent risks since time crunches often push work to less-knowledgeable or less-experienced personnel.

  2. Beware of a client who is playing law firm ping-pong, or a client that moves from firm to firm. This is an indication of the type of person who's really never satisfied with life but is very willing to blame their attorney for their discontent.

  3. Avoid a client with unrealistic expectations or demands and who believes that your estimates, whether of time or outcome or costs, are guarantees instead of informed estimates.

  4. Watch out for clients who use pressure tactics. Clients who demand that all other cases be put aside to handle their matter first are bound to be trouble. You can recognize this type of client by their unjustified stipulations that the suit be filed TODAY. These clients usually overwhelm a law firm or attorney with phone calls over small details.

  5. Beware of clients with bad attitudes toward lawyers and the legal system. Lawyer-bashing to your face, even if it's done in a joking manner, may show a hidden disdain or contempt for the law, for judges or for lawyers. These clients are people with whom it would be difficult to establish a bond of trust, which is the cornerstone of the lawyer-client relationship.

  6. Be careful when the client suggests that they know the process better than the attorney, or that they want the attorney to act as an automaton on their behalf. A recent malpractice claim arose because the client's girlfriend had taken a couple of law classes in college and was telling the client to tell his attorney how to run the case.

  7. Avoid clients who can't articulate what they want to achieve. There may be psychological needs or ulterior motives in seeking representation. Clients who are looking for revenge are unlikely to be happy with the limited results that the legal system provides. This may lead to disappointment and resentment that can be turned upon the lawyer representing them.

  8. Watch out for clients who make legal fees and costs a major issue. Suits against clients for unpaid legal fees are a prime source for malpractice claims. Clients who can't or won't discuss or agree on fees, or who won't sign a fee agreement should be suspect. Clients who want to start now and pay later, or nit-pick over the fee, may be broadcasting a subsequent fee dispute or claim.

  9. Don't take matters that are outside of your normal areas of expertise. Cases in areas of law that the firm has little or no experience in should really trigger a client rejection. Taking a case for the learning experience could also include a lesson in insurance coverage and malpractice claim surcharges!

  10. Look hard at clients who use other matters as an inducement. When a client alludes to other work or other benefits in handling their case, it may be a sign that they know the downside of their case better than the attorney does. Promises to give a firm more business "down the road" or to supply lots of referrals or high profile visibility from taking a case is really just a sales pitch.