Not It! How to Effectively Screen Potential Clients

April 11, 2024

Reading time: 3 minutes

Remember when you started a game of tag as a kid and had to decide who was “it”? Of course, the only way to do this was to say “not it!” when someone started the quick 1-2-3 countdown. Although you may be eager to “play” and accept representation, effective client screening may save you from an unpleasant attorney-client relationship or even a malpractice claim. To avoid becoming “it” for that unsavory client, ask yourself these questions the next time you are interviewing a potential client:

Have they worked with another lawyer on this matter? I worked at a firm that had an unwritten rule to never be the second lawyer on a case. While you do not have to have a blanket prohibition of taking over a case from another lawyer, these circumstances should give you pause. The risk of malpractice is undoubtedly higher when you step into the shoes of another lawyer. And more often than not, it is the client that is the problem, not the prior lawyer. If you are willing to take the case, you should thoroughly vet the client and research the matter via online dockets or the file materials they may provide before agreeing to represent them.  

What are their expectations? Many potential clients are often disappointed to learn about possible timeline for their case, especially in litigation matters. What they believe could be resolved in a matter of weeks could take months or even years depending on the nature of the case and number of parties involved. Gauge their reaction to this information. If they are already exceedingly frustrated upon hearing the length of time their case could be tied up in litigation, you may want to turn them away. 

How do they react to the potential attorneys’ fees and costs? Your discussion about fees and costs is an important part of the initial client meeting. While you can’t offer them a hard and fast number of what they might pay you, set reasonable expectations about the costs of legal representation. How do they respond to the fee structure you present? Because many malpractice actions stem from fee disputes or attempts to collect unpaid bills, be sure to vet their ability to pay. If you believe they will struggle to pay you before you have even accepted their case, it is probably best not to represent them. 

Are you equipped to handle the matter? During that initial meeting, you are not only evaluating the potential client, you must also perform some self-evaluation by considering whether you have the legal knowledge and skill to handle their case. Model Rule 1.1 requires that a lawyer provide competent representation to a client. If you do not believe you are prepared to handle the case, stay out of the game.
Although there is no foolproof formula for client screening, trust your gut after you assess the potential client. Use your best judgment, and if you simply do not have a good feeling and do not want to take on the client, don’t be afraid to refuse to represent them. And, once you make that determination, send them a non-engagement letter so there is no question as to whether you are representing them. A non-engagement letter safeguards you and the firm from a potential malpractice claim related to an implied attorney-client relationship, and it also serves as a clear boundary to prevent any subsequent allegations of a conflict of interest. 

We all want to avoid that stereotypical problem client – the client who frequently calls to complain, is slow to pay (if they pay), and then is unhappy with a good and reasonable result. By asking these questions during your client screening process, you will be better equipped to avoid working with a troublesome client and might even avoid getting tagged with a malpractice claim. 

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Information provided by AttPro Ally is not intended as legal advice. This publication provides best practices for use in connection with general circumstances and ordinarily does not address specific situations. Specific situations should be discussed with legal counsel licensed in the appropriate jurisdiction. By publishing practice and risk prevention tips, Attorney Protective neither implies nor provides any guarantee that claims can be prevented by the use of the suggested practices. Though the contents of AttPro Ally have been carefully researched, Attorney Protective makes no warranty as to its accuracy, applicability, or timeliness. Anyone wishing to reproduce any part of the AttPro Ally content must request permission from Attorney Protective by calling 877-728-8776 or sending an email to [email protected].

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