Not all clients are created equal, and the same concept is true for cases.
Without a doubt, the one thing that has drastically changed in my practice is how I evaluate potential cases. Whether you are starting a new firm, or you are a veteran attorney trying to enhance your bottom line, start with your procedures for case evaluation.
Step 1: The Eyeball Test
The eyeball test means two things: Is this a good client (regardless of the potential merits), and is it clear of a procedural issue or emergency?
When evaluating clients, I have a list of red flags that generally mean I will not take the case. Like most lawyers, I have talked to potential clients and declined to represent them without hearing much about their potential case. If there is something about a client that does not fit my standard profile at the intake stage, it will become a bigger problem as the case develops.
For procedural status, “I have a hearing tomorrow that I need help with” is almost a guaranteed non-starter. Despite clear and repeated efforts to create realistic expectations for these clients, it generally fails. Even when the expectations are laid out in writing, when things go south, the lawyer gets the blame.
The only time I will handle these types of situations is when I get paid upfront, and when there is a clear understanding in the retainer of what I can and cannot do, given the procedural stance. That usually amounts to a conversation along the lines of “I will do everything I can to help you, but I do not have magical powers, and you are in a very bad position because it is now the 11th hour.”
Both of these eyeball tests sound simple and easy. But for young attorneys, it is easy to see the pot of gold and ignore who is holding it.
Step 2: Prove You Can Handle a Case Outside Your Practice Area
You can take cases outside of your niche. That said, when you are approached about such cases, you need to prove to yourself that you are competent to handle the matter. Taking the opposite (or careless) approach of “I don’t do personal injury, but this sure looks like a standard dog bite case” is a recipe for disaster. If you do not handle personal injury cases, you probably do not have the necessary expertise and insight to make that determination. For example, you may be unfamiliar with the common defenses, recent case law, and how the local judiciary (and opposing counsel) handle these types of cases.
The good news is that if you have a good network of attorneys, you should be able to quickly decide if it is a case worth pursuing. A ten-minute phone call to the right person should help you learn everything you need to know in order to make a thumbs up or thumbs down decision on the case. Once you have that information, decide if it is something that you can (and want) to handle. For example, maybe your law school buddy turned personal injury expert tells you that your case is a rock solid claim that’s worth $50,000. He also told you that the insurance company will tie you up in discovery for a year, and you will need to fly all over the country taking depositions before they will seriously talk settlement.
If you mostly handle estate planning and transactional matters, maybe this isn’t your cup of tea. Maybe you are a litigator that mostly does motion practice over legal issues. Maybe you hate flying. The point is you want to make sure that pursuing the case is something you canhandle. Simply taking on the case because it looks like a good case is unlikely to work out well in the end.
Step 3: Make Sure The Case Fits Into Your Current Caseload
Young lawyers interested in going solo always ask me, “What do you do when you have too much work?” My standard response is, “I never have enough work, and I never turn down a good case.” That is 100% accurate, but the definition of a “good case” depends on the week and my current caseload. If my active cases are dormant (waiting on discovery, etc.) and I’m sitting around twiddling my thumbs, then a good case could be anything. Frankly, I am usually actively looking for quick turnaround cases at that point. I know I have time, but I will not when things heat up again.
If all of my active cases are hyperactive, the definition changes. It is the exact opposite of when I’m slow; I am looking for cases that I can investigate and work on as my other cases resolve. In other words, anything that needs a quick turnaround is something that I will turn down.
In other words, you have to look at the big picture when taking cases (depending on your practice area of course). If you constantly take clients with legal emergencies and just hop from client to client, you will never have time to take on potentially larger cases that require a more thorough and drawn out investigation and preparation.
Step 4: Trust Your Gut
If you are on the fence about taking a case, go with your gut.
Your gut will tell when you should turn down what appears to be a great case, but there is something not right (but you can’t put your finger on it). I have turned down those cases. And those cases end up in someone else’s office, eventually going south.
Your gut will also tell you when you should take a case where the legal elements do not line up nice and clean, but the facts or client will sway any jury. Good facts are usually a recipe for success.
Originally published 2014-10-02. Last updated 2015-10-16.