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Clients are Like Buses, There’s Always Another One Coming

I’ve always been reluctant to tell a prospective client that I don’t want their case. I don’t like having to turn them away. It’s awkward and uncomfortable.

But, there are times when it’s important to turn them away. Sometimes it’s clear that they won’t ever be satisfied. Sometimes it’s clear that we won’t be able to stand dealing with them. Sometimes it’s clear that the client’s mental illness will make it impossible for us to be of help. The list of reasons to turn someone away is long.

Usually these people have big red flags. They are on lawyer number three. They’ve got huge outstanding legal bills. They’re abusive to your staff. The warnings signs are abundantly clear.

When I have one of these people in my office I fantasize about doing this – I tell them I have something I want to show them in the lobby. I walk them out there. They step through the lobby door and I jump back and pull it closed. We’ve got this great combination lock and I hear it click shut.

I can’t however do it. It just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do.

So instead of saying “we won’t take your case” I do something else. I quote them a fee. I quote them a really big fee and hope they will go find someone for less. Amazingly, that doesn’t always work and they call back a week or so later with the money ready to go.

Suddenly I’m facing a huge dilemma. I know I shouldn’t take the case. I also know they’re offering me a bunch of money to take it. It makes me crazy.

What do I do? Sometimes I’ve taken the case, other times I’ve turned them away.

Nearly every time I’ve taken one of these cases, I’ve regretted it. I never should have gotten involved and it stings twice as bad when it goes sour because I knew it was going to happen.

As I get older, I get better about passing these cases by. It’s still a challenge. I remind myself, constantly, that clients are like buses. There’s always another one coming.

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  • Kimberly Graham

    My favorite reason to turn a potential client away is this: They come in and say: “I want to take him/her for everything he’s/she’s got.” Not only does the law not allow for that in Iowa, but if there are children involved, that sort of goal is always in contradiction with what’s healthiest for them. I tell them I may not be representing their children directly, but I do think about them and won’t be part of making their lives sad and difficult. Parents have got to work together, ironically, and especially, after a divorce.

  • Dan Dalton

    I believe it is always, always a mistake to accept a would-be client from hell in exchange for money. Most of us have made this mistake, likely more than once. It stems from fear, greed, or both. The potential client who’s going to torment you by rattling around your head at 2 a.m. or sending you running for Advil (or something else) every afternoon at 4:30 is never worth it. Repeat: never.
    My line is that “your case is complicated, and I simply don’t have the time to give it the attention that you deserve (and don’t let the door hit ya).
    Lee says that “nearly every time” he has regretted taken someone like this. I have regretted it every single time, and have been all over myself later for having smelled trouble about four minutes into the first meeting, but diving in anyway. I have, however, NEVER regretted not taking someone like this. Never.

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Lee Rosen

Lee Rosen has practiced family law for more than twenty years. With four offices, Rosen Law Firm serves Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rosen served as the Law Practice Management Editor of the ABA Family Advocate for more than a decade and received the ABA James Keane Award for excellence in eLawyering. He served as Chair of the Law Practice Management Section of the North Carolina Bar Association, is a frequent speaker and is often sought out by the media as a source of family law insight and commentary.