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?

No.

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 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 with your problem client. Also, 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. 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.

Originally published 2014-07-16. Republished 2017-03-24.

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

20 responses to “The Bad Clients You Don’t Take Will Be the Best Money You Never Made”

  1. Scott Bassett says:

    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.

  2. Bobby says:

    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 says:

      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.

  3. Ross & Ross says:

    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.

  4. Randall Ryder says:

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

  5. ecba says:

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

  6. Jerry Stevens says:

    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.

  7. Kathryn says:

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

  8. Joe Flanders says:

    Yep. You hit this one on the head.

  9. Paul McGuire says:

    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.

  10. Brian Burke says:

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

  11. Catherine Mulcahey says:

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

  12. Codesign says:

    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

  13. Brian Reinthaler says:

    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.”

  14. Barbara says:

    It’s hard as someone new to a field to turn down clients, I’ve been there. But I’ve seen this very thing firsthand, both in having my own design business for many years, and more recently in the legal field working with attorneys … so frustrating when what I call my “L” list (I’ll let others decide what that stands for, let’s just say they win the 6 invoices+ in arrears award) has a total in the ledger many times larger than receivables for the month! Ugh. Not worth the time, energy, and growing money pit slowly blowing a hole in your company’s/firm’s accounting (as well as compromising your stress level). Develop your intuition for business when it comes to clients. It’s something you learn over time (hopefully!), and it will prove invaluable many, many times over. Quality over quantity!

  15. CONfused says:

    •Tells you what the law is or how the law works

    What is wrong with accepting a client who points out the law they want to file a case over? If I came to you claiming that 28 CFR sections 35.130 and 35.160 have been violated and then show proof of the apparent violation of specific sections of those laws is that not a solid basis for needing a lawyer?

    Does my knowing the laws involved in my situation threaten you somehow? I want to put my evidence and research into the hands of a competent lawyer hoping they will take it to a successful conclusion. Research ability only goes so far. Knowing how to apply research in court is a completely different ballgame. Why would reaching out for help after looking at specific laws make me a bad client? My approach of knowing the exact laws involved means a lawyer can easily look at my research and determine if I have a case they can work with or not.

    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

    There are good and bad lawyers. There is no easy way to find out which you are. Why is this a problem? I contacted a lawyer with 55 years of experience in an area I need help in. How can I know a 28 year old lawyer is any good without evidence?

  16. Penelope Gardner says:

    Absolutely accurate. I will never again offer a flat-fee to do a simple divorce because even explaining what I mean by “simple” never quite registers. If your estranged spouse is in the Philippines and you can’t afford to pay a process server because it’s such a violent area, don’t report “me” for not filing your divorce. Same deal when you need me to first draft a child support agreement which, of course, you don’t want to pay me to draft – even though “buddy” is earning triple what you do and you share custody. As the years pass, I get better at figuring out who to lose before I pick them up. They must pay me to care – and make regular installments.

  17. Jim Turner says:

    Great advice that applies to ANY business! You could republish this on any professional site with those Bad Customer Identifiers and get rave reviews!! We’ve all been burned at some point by people like this – great reminder to stay alert and not be too desperate for the business.

  18. Jessica says:

    This is a great article, and I think that all potential clients should read this. I am not a lawyer, but utilizing legal services at this time. Speaking from this perspective, I had no idea what to do or expect from my attorney or the legal system/process in general. I think for all attorneys it may be wise to educate potential clients on expectations and not assume that all know how to be good clients. People also react differently than they normally would when under stress. Remember, you are not meeting people during happy times in their lives; people are reaching out because they are in some sort of conflict. This is not to say that there are some nuts out there that you just need to avoid.

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