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Effective Client Screening

By Dolores Dorsainvil

Running a successful practice includes the ability to effectively screen prospective clients. In this tough economy, lawyers need to establish a practice policy by which they are able to make appropriate screening decisions about the clients they wish to represent. Doing so would assist an attorney in not feeling the need to accept any and every legal matter that should come through the door; and, it would also assist an attorney in avoiding possible ethical pitfalls and/or disciplinary complaints.

The initial meeting with the prospective client is an important time to assess several things. First, an attorney should determine early on whether he or she is qualified to handle the matter. (If an attorney does not feel competent enough to handle such a matter, than it is advisable for the attorney to send the prospective client a writing indicating so in the form of a non-engagement letter.) Second, the meeting provides the attorney an opportunity to assess whether the client will be a high risk or difficult client. Third, the attorney should determine what the prospective client’s expectations are and also determine whether the attorney can reasonably satisfy those expectations. After making these assessments and advising the client on the applicable law and/or the legal process, an attorney should inform the client on their fee basis and the attorney should consider whether the client can meet the attorney’s financial expectations.

If an attorney is able to complete these steps without incident, the decision to undertake such a representation should be a fairly easy one. However, there are some prospective clients that may cause an attorney some concern. When faced with these warning signs, an attorney may wish to decline the representation:

  • Client who is changing lawyers
  • Client who has had several previous lawyers on the same matter
  • Client whose expectations exceed the evaluation of the case
  • Client who has unreasonable motives or a hidden agenda
  • Client who has performed considerable amount of research on the case
  • Client who refuses to pay the required consultation fee or retainer
  • Client who you cannot empathize with
  • Client who makes you feel uncomfortable

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, an attorney should recognize certain negative gut feelings that they may have about a prospective client. Doing so will help an attorney make the critical judgment call on whether, or not, to accept the representation. Developing an effective client screening process means an attorney will spend less time defending against bar complaints, malpractice actions, and fee disputes, and can spend more time, in the long run, focusing on such things as client development, marketing, firm growth, and professional development.

For more information on this topic, check out this Podcast:  Dolores Dorsainvil on Law Practice Management.

Dolores discusses the importance of law practice management, effective client screening, retainer agreements and how to handle attorney trust accounts. She also explains what attorneys should do if disputes arise with clients and where to turn for assistance.

For more information, check out this article on Choosing Clients Wisely by Pat Yevics, MSBA LOMA director. Another helpful link from MSBA LOMA is this sample Client Intake Form.