Animal Instincts: Don’t Let Your Clients Choose You

As a business consultant to solo and small firm lawyers for the past decade, Jared Correia has helped lawyers deal with many law practice…issues. In his column, “Law Practice Confidential,” he will be answering real questions from real lawyers. To send Jared an anonymous question, use the form at the bottom of this post.

Q: I think my clients’ pets hate me.

I have a puppy named Rufus, and he stays at my office with me during work hours. So I promote a pet-friendly environment. I encourage my clients to bring in their pets, too. But lately, that hasn’t been going so well.

Last week, a client’s German Shepherd peed on the rug, and he left without even cleaning it up! (The human, not the dog.) Yesterday, my client came in with her parrot. And (I am not kidding) the parrot was swearing at me! I think my client taught her parrot to cuss me out! Or maybe the parrot just learned from my client, who usually swears at me.

I don’t want to start leaving Rufus at home or refusing pets at my office.

Please help.

—AGG, Greenville

A: You don’t have a pet problem. You have a client problem.

Your clients don’t respect you, and they are taking advantage of you. Although you are viewing it through the lens of their pets, I suspect that if you take a broader view of your attorney-client relationships, many of them are toxic. The acts you mention are merely specific manifestations of the way that your clients treat you in general.

It could be that you’re taking every client that comes through your door, which is a common foible of lawyers hanging shingles, as well as general practitioners. Or, it may be that you’re not carefully selecting the clients you want.

If you wish to establish a practice that fits your lifestyle and personality, it will be essential for you to choose your clients, rather than letting your clients choose you. You want a comfortable relationship that’s close, but not too close. Your clients have to know who is boss. They shouldn’t make you uncomfortable or have you feeling constricted.

Of course, you don’t want to rely exclusively on your gut or ad hoc decision-making, as so many lawyers do. You’ll want to develop a specific process for selecting clients.

Think of both the positive and negative aspects that could attach to a potential client.

On the demerit side of the ledger:

  • Is the potential client already swearing at you?
  • Did the potential client send you an introductory email that was really long and that invoked government experiments perpetrated on him?
  • Is the potential client trying to dictate case strategy based on a close reading of Nolo?
  • Has the client used multiple lawyers for the same claim?
  • Is the client’s case covered by your practice niche, or are you stretching your experience or expertise in order to take it?

Conversely, there may actually be things you like (I know, right!) about the potential client:

  • Did the potential client arrive early for your initial consultation, and were they respectful of your time when their hour was up?
  • Is the potential client responsive to your initial requests?
  • Does the potential client exhibit intellectual curiosity about the law affecting their case, without being overbearing?
  • Does the client pay your rate, or agree to pay your rate, without asking for a discount?
  • Is the client courteous to your staff?

This short list, of course, is only a sampling of a potential client vetting strategy. Develop your own, and run through your checklist before taking on any new client. Ultimately, the decision will be up to you (and not the client), but using a client selection system will serve as an effective gut check against your desperation or overreaching.

Plus, you won’t have to Google methods for cleaning pet urine from your rugs anymore.

(But, in the meantime, try hydrogen peroxide.)

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