This post is part of "Suddenly Solo," a series of 6 posts. You can start at the beginning or see all posts in the series.

Not all clients are created equal. Great clients will enhance your legal skills, your reputation, and your bottom line.  Bad clients can make you question your skills, destroy your reputation, and result in the worst money you have ever made.

Once you have a better understanding of how bad clients can wreck your practice, you will get better at spotting them and avoiding them. And it will be the best money you never made.

Money is Money, Right?


Bad clients have an amazing way of sapping time and energy in ways you cannot bill for. You probably cannot bill a client extra for meeting only in the evenings or on the weekends. You definitely cannot bill a client extra because you have a personality conflict.

Even if you could bill for scheduling issues, you cannot bill for stress. You cannot bill for screaming when you get off the phone. You cannot bill for not sleeping well. You cannot bill for spending an hour talking about why you already wrote off a third of your time and why your bill is reasonable. Talk to any smart attorney and they will tell you that the total cost of a problem client does not add up in the long run.

Bad Clients Can Crowd Out Good Clients

Bad clients are like a virus that spreads throughout your practice. They make you icky and grumpy while you marathon-watch Arrested Development all day in bed.

Bad clients can cause you to turn down good clients for two reasons:

  1. Bad clients have an amazing way of sucking up more time than they should. That means you will probably turn down good clients because you are so busy dealing your problem client. It’s tough to admit, but I know that I have done it.
  2. The mental fatigue is greater than you realize. When you are in the middle of dealing with a bad client, it can make otherwise good clients seem like bad clients. Bad clients cloud your thinking and mess with your normally rock-solid client evaluation skills.

It Gets Worse Before it Gets Better

Let’s go back to the virus metaphor. When was the last time you started to get sick and magically woke up feeling better the next day? It’s pretty rare. Same thing with bad clients. They usually become much worse before they get better. And when I say better, I mean the case ends or you fire them.

You are doing yourself a disservice if you tell yourself “it can only get better” or “it has to get better from here.” Sure, you can cross your fingers and hope they suddenly start responding to phone calls or emails. Maybe the first three appointments they missed truly were emergencies (although I doubt it).

Hopefully your retainer has a provision for these scenarios. Hopefully you are not afraid to invoke it and terminate your representation. I am not suggesting you become cut-throat and cut loose every client that is five minutes late to a meeting. But if they no-show, or are two hours late, that is a serious red flag — and a giant flashing sign that there will be more trouble down the road.

The Warning Signs Are Usually Clear

Now that you understand all money is not created equal, you can sharpen your intake skills to avoid bad clients. Over the past five years I have talked to thousands of potential clients. Without fail, the most important thing I have learned is to trust my gut.

Someone might call with what sounds like the greatest case in the world, but something makes me question the case or the client. Whether it’s during the first meeting, the second meeting, or right before the case implodes, my gut is almost always right. I used to fight it and talk myself into taking cases. Not anymore. If my gut says no, then I say no.

If you are not ready to live and die by your gut, here are some other warning signs that trouble could be brewing down the road:

That is not an exhaustive list by any means. Those are just some of the red alerts I have encountered. As noted above, if your gut says something is not right, something is probably amiss. That is the perfect opportunity to bounce the case off another attorney and get some feedback. But never try and convince yourself that any client is a good client. It’s not that simple.

Featured image: “employee gets punched through a smart phone on the face by an angry caller” from Shutterstock

  • Scott Bassett

    Excellent post! I give the same advice to my Law Practice Management students. When you are just getting starting and clients are slow to call, taking money from any breathing human seems like a good idea. Then you get a bad client who chews up all of your time, prevents you from marketing yourself to gain additional clients, and renders you unable to properly serve the good clients you have.

    You don’t have to personally like all of your clients, but over time careful lawyers develop their own mental checklist to week out bad clients when they make the initial contact.

  • Bobby

    1. Gets dropped off at your office for the appointment with no way of leaving.
    2. Tries to size you up by asking you a lot of questions about your legal background: how long have you been a lawyer, how many cases have you won, what was your LSAT score.
    3. Wants to pray with you, brings a bible to the meeting.
    4. Asks to see your malpractice declarations page.
    5. Referred to you by a lawyer that doesn’t like you, or is in exactly your same practice area (some lawyers refer nuts to each other as pranks)

    • Kilted Lawyer

      I love number 3! I used to be a fundamentalist pastor before law school, so everyone assumes I’m still a religious zealot (I am not) and wants to “pray” about the case.

  • Great post! Sometimes it gets to the point where our staff knows who is calling before answering the phone! Some bad clients have decent cases, but the manpower they require through phone calls, recurring issues, etc. just isn’t worth the money.

  • Randall Ryder

    I should have added the potential client that calls repeatedly to confirm you received their email. That drives me crazy.

  • ecba

    Such great advice. Wish I read this two years ago! Lesson learned.

  • This applies to disciplines other than the law as well. I’m not an attorney but I learned early on that the best thing about self-employment is that I don’t have to accept clients I don’t like. I can usually spot trouble in the first meeting but in the corporate world all could do was wait for the in inevitable train wreck.

  • Kathryn

    1. Has joke business cards made up for himself that refer to him as “Emperor”.

    • Brian Burke

      Or “House Husband”. Kid you not.

  • Joe Flanders

    Yep. You hit this one on the head.

  • Paul McGuire

    Yup. If a client and misses the first meeting without calling to re-schedule then I typically drop them. If they can’t keep that meeting then who knows what other things they are going to miss down the road? For the most part the only difference between the no-show and the client who calls to re-schedule is one additional contact from the one who called to re-schedule. They still rarely call you again later they at least have the courtesy to let you know they aren’t going to be there when they scheduled.

    Signing up a client and getting an agreement signed is the easy part. If that can’t go off smoothly (along with your retainer) then you certainly are not going to have an easy time getting the client to meet other more important deadlines like ones set by the Court.

  • Brian Burke

    As it was once put to me, “Having no work is better than having bad work.”

  • Catherine Mulcahey

    When they say “I may be paranoid, but. . . ” there’s no maybe about it.

  • Codesign

    I’m not an attorney but many of my clients are. And I had one tell me “You know, the only reason I hired you was because you were cheaper than the other guy.” SMH

  • Brian Reinthaler

    Great post, Randall. Lawyers, entrepreneurs and professionals of all stripes could adapt/aplly these ideas in so many valuable ways. Yet another area of life and career where “less is more.”