A Lawyer’s Guide to Turning Down Work

I’m a lawyer.  I really am.  I have been for 26 plus years.  I’ve always been able to attract clients and must have done a competent job for most of them since I’ve had a lot of repeat business.  This doesn’t make me an expert on business development, as we call it.  Honestly, I’m not sure how best to go about that.  Moreover, the legal world is chock full of advice on building your practice, marketing and generating new business.  It’s doubtful that I have much to add to that vast sea of information, or misinformation, as the case may be.

I once worked in a law firm that was concerned to the point of obsession about generating new business.  “Origination” was the term they used.  If one “originated” enough business, he or she became a “rainmaker,” the most valuable of all lawyers, regardless of legal acumen or lack thereof.  The rules regarding origination credit were Byzantine and ever-changing.  For example, you might think you deserved credit for a new client, only to find out that aged partner had represented an employee of the company on a DUI many years ago.  Thus, he was entitled to the credit.  After all, he had planted the seed decades ago.  As one of my partners once noted:  “The Origination rules aren’t written down.  That’s understandable since they change every day.”

Although I have created my share of personal marketing plans, I claim no expertise.  I’ve thought both outside and inside the box.  I’ve been proactive.  I’ve networked.  I’ve schmoozed and small-talked.  I’ve even found time to practice quite a bit of law.  None of this sets me apart from other lawyers.

The one area where I believe I have something to contribute is in turning down business or knowing when existing business is turning sour.  For a long time, I wasn’t good at this, much to my chagrin.  Now, though, I know the red flags that warn me to stay far away from a potential client or to at least understand my situation.  I’ll share a few of those with you.

1. PRIDE GOETH BEFORE A FALL

At least that’s what it says somewhere in the Bible. It doesn’t really apply here, but I like saying it. Any the who, it goes without saying that we don’t want to represent folks who will refuse to pay us.  Now, this is different from a client who suddenly can’t pay.  I’ve represent several clients–individuals and companies–who sunk into dire finances during my representation of them.  This is a professional risk.  It’s happened to some of my favorite clients.

The ones I’m talking about are the ones who won’t pay.  Here’s a bad sign:  You are the third lawyer they’ve hired on a particular matter.  This is a person who doesn’t play well with others.  Just as important, this person has had bad relationships with other lawyers.  Why?  It probably has something to do with money.  Ask this potential client if he owes the other lawyers money.  If the answer is “yes,” run!  A client that will stiff one lawyer will do it to you.  At least ask for an upfront deposit against your fees.  If they aren’t willing to invest in their case, you shouldn’t either.

Related to this is the client who doesn’t want to discuss your bills.  Oh, he or she paid you regularly for a while, then slowed a bit and finally stopped paying.  You ask about it and are told that the client will be caught up soon.  Don’t worry.  When you hear that, worry. A lot.

Lawyers are an odd breed.  We don’t like to push our clients about bills.  Perhaps we are embarrassed by the amounts we bill.  Maybe it’s just an uncomfortable topic.  Regardless, when you don’t confront, it gets worse.  It’s Business 101 that the older a bill gets, the less likely it is to ever get paid.

The question, of course, is: When is enough enough?  There’s no way to state of rule of thumb here.  Large law firms are able to carry large receivables for a long time.  Small firms like mine can’t.  Here is an exchange which should end your representation immediately (I’ve had some variation of this multiple times):

Lawyer:  Carl, we need to talk about your bills.  We haven’t been paid in six months, and we need to get this caught up.

Client:  I know.  I know.  We have cash flow problems, but we’re working on it.  I don’t know when we’ll be able to get caught up, but we’re good for it.

Lawyer:  I appreciate that, but we can’t commit substantial time and expense without some assurance of getting paid. 

Client:  What do you mean?  Are just going to quit on me?

Lawyer:  I don’t want to do that, but I’ll have to if we can’t get paid.

Client:  You’ve insulted me.  If you don’t want to work on the case, that’s fine…..

See what we have here?  You–a business person–have addressed the most basic need of your business–income.  Your client is insulted by the prospect of having to pay you.  You must run from this client with all haste.  If you don’t, don’t expect to ever get paid again.

2. DON’T REPRESENT CATS

Of course, it’s well-known that there are no cat herds.  Cats don’t do that.  They just scatter about.  Some of your clients are like that.  They aren’t dogs.  They don’t have a leader.  They are cats, scurrying about with no one in charge.  These are not good clients.

The Cat Client comes in various forms–corporations, families, virtually any collective of people.  No one is in charge.  The point person, your “client contact,” as we call it, seems to be the boss until real decisions have to be made.  Then, no one is in charge.  In a corporation, you may hear from the President, the CFO, the in-house attorney or the janitor.  They all have differing views on the goals to be achieved.  If you need a question answered quickly, good luck.

I’ve represented several churches in my career.  Each was a fine organization headed by fine people, but no one was in charge.  The minister works for the church at the pleasure of the Elders or whatever group is supposed to be in charge.  That group has no leader.  They make decisions as a collective.  Getting direction is almost impossible.  You’ll end up frustrated, and so will they.

Families are even more difficult.  Most families are like mine and have no structure whatsoever.  No one is in charge, and they like it like that.

Here’s what you do.  At the first sign of cat-like behavior, set some ground rules.   A contact person is a good start.  Get a list of folks who need to be updated on your case.  You might have to paper or email them into submission, but it’s worth it.  Better to keep too many in the loop than not enough.

3. IT’S ABOUT THE MONEY

This isn’t about the money. It’s the principle.” These words send a chill up the spine of all experienced attorneys. It is, after all, about the money–at least most of the time.  The sooner your client comes to that realization, the better off you both will be.

Unless it’s a criminal case or, possibly, a divorce, it’s all about the money. If you sue someone, you want money. If you’ve been sued, you don’t want to pay money. In fact, you may not even want to pay your own lawyer.

Let’s say your client is in a $500 dispute. A good lawyer (or even a bad one who wants to get paid) explains that the client will pay the lawyer far more than $500. If the client responds that he or she would rather pay the lawyer, you must pause, tamp down your greed and repeat your cautionary warning. Slowly and clearly.

If your client persists, go forward but be realistic. At some point, your client will realize that it is, in fact, about the money after all.  When they owe you more than they do the adversary or more than they can possibly recover, they’ll know it’s about the money.  At that point, you may well be the adversary.

4. THEY DON’T REALLY WANT A LAWYER

Given the general public’s disdain for the legal profession, it isn’t surprising that a lot of people–maybe most–don’t want to hire a lawyer.  This is especially true of trial lawyers.  There is a subtle but important difference between needing one and wanting one.

Good clients want to hire you.  They want your advice and expertise.  Some folks–thankfully a small percentage–hire you only because they must.  They do not recognize you as having any specialized knowledge or skill.  Indeed, these clients are prevented from doing your job only because of their dearth of education and lack of professional credentials.  Nevertheless, they know how to do your job better than you do.

They’ll plot strategy for you.  They know the best witnesses.  They even know the questions you should ask during depositions and trials.  During trial, they will hand you helpful notes such as “Ask him if he’s lying!” They will disagree with you about the law.  You will calmly explain a basic concept such as the abolition of Debtor’s Prison, and they will contend that it is unfair.  You will explain that a certain position is not legally sound, and your client will disagree based upon nothing more than his or her idea of what the law should be.

This client will not be pleased with your work.  Monday Morning Quarterbacks rarely are.  If you are prepared for this, by all means go forth.  Such clients are best represented once.  The good news is that their displeasure with you likely means that they will move on to new lawyer anyway (See Item No. 1 above).

I suppose other professions deal with similar issues.  Perhaps cancer patients demand that their oncologists provide certain medications or ask to assist in surgery.  In that case, I’m sure the doctor will continue to prescribe what is best.  Lawyers must do the same.  Keep advising even if your advice is ignored.  Besides, isn’t it just a wee bit satisfying to get to say “I told you so!”?

5. BE A CRIMINAL LAWYER, NOT A LAWYER CRIMINAL

Criminals are entitled to lawyers just like everyone else.  That’s one of the great things about America.  Even if you are guilty, the government still has to prove its case against you.

Where a lawyer gets off base is when he or she becomes the criminal.  Hey, if your client breaks the law, it’s your job to help.  By that, I mean help defend your client, not help your client break the law.  It’s real simple:  If your client is doing something illegal, strongly advise against it, and don’t participate in it.

It’s bad when your client goes to prison.  It’s worse when you go, too.

6.  YOU WANT A WHAT?

Sometimes, people aren’t looking for a lawyer.  They want a “bulldog” or “pit bull.”  Someone once told me that he was looking for “Someone who will get down in the gutter and fight to the death.  Win at all costs!”  Beware of folks like this.  Why?

First, if your self-image is that of an animal or you imagine yourself wallowing in the gutter, you may need therapy.  Second, this type of talk is often code for:  “I want an unethical and, if necessary, dishonest lawyer.”  Third, they want you to engage in all manner of harassing shenanigans that will likely make their fees grow exponentially.  Then, you run into Item Nos. 1 and 3 above.

The best lawyers I’ve known are polite and professional. They zealously represent their client like human beings, not animals.  They don’t harangue their opponents or needlessly fight about every detail.

If you need a lawyer, I’m your man.  If you need a dog, go to the Humane Society.

7.  DEVELOP A NUT ALLERGY

I can’t emphasize this enough.  It is, after all, the most important point of all.  Nuts need and want lawyers just like regular people.  In fact, many nuts require legal representation far more than normal people.  This is because they are frequently embroiled in controversies in which only nutty people are involved.  Identifying nuts, however, is most difficult.

Here’s one sign:  There’s a conspiracy.  A large group of people (often the Government) have conspired against your client.  These conspiracies can involve the judiciary and all other levels of government.  Remember:  If there really is a conspiracy–which does happen sometimes, it will usually be pretty easy to crack.  If it is hidden under layers of impenetrable silence, consider this very real possibility:  It isn’t true.

Another sign:  Vast amounts of paper.  I have had cases involving hundreds of thousands of documents.  Believe it or not, that’s not uncommon.  What is uncommon is a client who presents you with piles of irrelevant paper.  Often, these papers are carried around in their pockets or cars.  You don’t know what they mean.  Neither does your client. But they are important.

A final sign:  The case no one will take.  This is a potential client who describes to you an impossibly lucrative case which no lawyer will take.  These cases involve millions of dollars.  There’s usually a conspiracy and a mountain of irrelevant paperwork associated with the case.  Here are few real life examples that I’ve either heard about or experienced myself:

  • The DeGroot Patents:  These are a series of 19th Century land patents from the Commonwealth of Kentucky under which someone claims vast mineral resources.  You are likely to find that they are junior patents, inferior to the entire rest of the world’s claims.
  • Forced Homosexuality:  This was a guy who sued Eastern Airlines (and many others) for being involved in a nationwide conspiracy to force him into homosexuality.
  • Nigerians:  These folks really need lawyers, usually to help transfer funds stolen from some government enterprise.  If you fall for this one, you deserve it.

Often, you won’t know your client is a nut until deep into the representation.  Be patient.  They will rarely see things your way.  Remember that if they ever come back around.

I guess you noticed that I didn’t really say you should turn down all of this type of work.  Times are tough in the legal profession, and none of us are as choosy as we’d like to be.  That said, if you do turn down this type of work, you won’t be sorry.  After all, sometimes, it really is the principle of the thing.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

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