Client Selection: Bad Client Warning Signs

Client selection is one of the most important and most overlooked levers for lawyers’ success. Much attention is paid to marketing and client acquisition, but much less emphasis is placed on determining whether lawyers are attracting and working with the right kinds of clients.

Not every client is a good client. Some clients are downright awful and they shift your focus away from the good, high value clients who might bring you more business.

If you cringe when you know a particular client is on the telephone or wants to schedule a meeting with you, if you have clients that consistently fail to see the value of the work you do, who are uncooperative, fail to pay their bills on time, or who are disrespectful to your or your staff, it may be time for you to fire a client or two.

But getting rid of less desirable clients is only part of the solution. You’ll need to put some systems in place to help you determine at the outset which clients are good clients and which are bad ones so you can send the bad ones packing before they cause trouble for your practice.

Why lawyers take bad clients

Sometimes lawyers accept the wrong clients out of that same desire to be nice or to help, particularly if the client is referred by a friend or colleague. But if a client is not right for you, it probably is not worth the headache. Be polite in rejecting the client or referring the matter to someone better suited for it. Then contact your referral source, advise them you could not take the client, and thank them for the referral. Use the conversation as an opportunity to educate the referral sources about what kinds of clients you’re seeking.

Some referral sources aren’t clear about what you do and who you want to work with. Others understand that not every client may be the right ‘fit,’ but they’d rather that you made that decision. Be open with referral sources about whether you want all referrals or only targeted ones (being a ‘hub’ has its advantages), and make sure that they understand that not every client may be right for you, but that you appreciate they thought of you.

Another reason you might take on the wrong clients is money. You might be afraid that turning away the client isn’t a prudent financial move. But consider the damage that bad clients do to your bottom line, your stress level, your focus and ability provide quality work not only for the ‘bad’ client, but for other clients as well. And don’t forget: bad clients drive out good clients.

Identify bad clients early

Your gut is the best judge of bad clients. Don’t ignore that gut feeling that signals that a client might not be the right fit for you (or might not be telling you the truth).
I have had countless conversations with lawyers who come to me before entering into an engagement with a potential client, and they are not sure whether they should take the client. Some red flags have been raised, or they just have a ‘bad feeling’ about the client. Instead of listening to that feeling, they try to talk themselves out of rejecting the client. They don’t trust their gut. They make excuses for a client’s bad behavior, inability to listen or follow directions, or other warning signs.

10 Bad client warning signs

If you can recognize the warning signs, you can stop bad clients before they enter your practice. Bad clients:

  1. Are overly concerned about the fee, ask about the fee before you discuss their legal problem, won’t talk to you about their budget or don’t know what it is
  2. Have tunnel vision about the matter and don’t want to listen to new ideas, aren’t interested in other options, or can’t face reality about their role in creating the situation
  3. Have over-exaggerated expectations, particularly for their budget or time limitations
  4. Need everything in a rush
  5. Don’t keep the initial appointment, show up late, or fail to call when they say they will (particularly in combination with the previous warning sign)
  6. Don’t listen or don’t understand simple initial instructions
  7. Take a long time to return your retainer agreement or to provide requested documents or materials
  8. Have fired (or been fired by) several lawyers before you
  9. Don’t exhibit an understanding of the issues involved, even after you explain them
  10. Bully or disrespect you or your staff

Remember that the attorney-client relationship is a two way street. Sometimes bad clients are created because of the interaction between lawyer and client. If you continually encounter the same warning signs or find that every potential client exhibits some of them, the problem may be with your pre-screening or pre-qualifying procedures or your own inability to communicate properly. Take a good hard look at how you (or your staff) are interacting with potential clients to see where you can improve. Be sure that you are managing expectations properly to help ensure your client interactions are positive.

If you’re confident that the problem is not you, listen to your gut, pay heed to the warning signs and turn away those clients who don’t fit into your practice. You’ll be glad you did.

(image: Businessman must choose from Shutterstock)


  1. Avatar Karen Lundquist says:

    Now, I always do a search of a potential client to see if he/she has any judgments entered against him or any type of criminal record. This is especially helpful if the judgments against the potential are for unpaid bills of any types. I learned this lesson the hard way. A new client, who exhibited both #1 and #4 in your list above, had more than $100,000 of judgments against him, including one for a law firm that he had worked with and stiffed for tens of thousands of dollars in fees. Opposing counsel showed me the court records. I should have known well enough to do the search on my own. Lesson learned.

  2. Avatar Jane says:

    I think this is bogus. I just asked an attorney about his fee. He couldn’t give me an estimate for what the case would cost. He just wanted to run the clock. He asked for a retainer but said it might go well beyond that. When I asked for a game plan, for how he planned to approach the case, he wanted me just to “trust” in his legal judgment and that once he received his money, he would talk to the other side and pursue resolution. I would have no way of knowing whether how much work he would do, whether he woudl exaggerate the time he put into it, or whether he would do the minium and collect his fee without caring how I fared in the arrangement. I suppose I would be considered “a bad client” for asking questions and just not lying myself prostrate before an attorney and allow him to focus on feeding the meter as opposed to striving for RESULTS in my case. Yes, I fired him….He said I was a bad client for asking questions….All attorneys should be able to justify their fees and potentially cap them as a per project basis without dumping on the client.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      It’s obviously impossible to know from your second hand account whether you are a “bad client” or whether you encountered a bad lawyer, but it has been my experience that people who are especially worried about fees are the least likely to pay me. The same goes for clients who seem suspicious of my motives or who seem untrusting. I’m not interested in working for clients who treat me like the enemy.

      That does not mean it is unreasonable to ask for an estimate (although for completely legitimate reasons it may not be possible to give one) or to ask for a game plan (although it may not be possible to formulate much of one at the outset). Clients should always be as fully informed about fees and strategy as possible. But it isn’t always possible to tell a client all they want to know, when they want to know it.

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