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Technofeature: When to say no: How to avoid problem clients by Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC

Copyright © 2002, Edward Poll

To succeed, every law firm from start-ups to multinational giants must avoid accepting business from problem clients. Careful client rejection makes the practice of law easier and more profitable because by minimizing fee collection problems and write-offs, keeping the morale of your staff as high as possible, and eliminating the stress and lost time associated with difficult clients.

10 red flags for the client review process
The ten red flags listed below are designed to facilitate the process of reviewing prospective clients. You may already take into account some or all of the suggestions below, but it never hurts to have a checklist for a critical process like client selection.

1. Emergencies: Pay particular attention to prospective clients who have last-minute emergencies or "life-and-death" matters. Unless your firm has sufficient personnel or specializes in crises, this type of client brings inherent risks since time crunches often push work to less-knowledgeable or less-experienced personnel.

2. Musical firms: Beware of prospective clients who play law firm ping-pong, or prospective clients that move from firm to firm. This bouncing around is often indicative of people who are really never satisfied with life, and apt to blame their attorney for their discontent.

3. Unrealistic: Avoid prospective clients with unrealistic expectations or demands who misinterpret your estimates, whether of time, outcome, or costs, as guarantees.

4. Pressure: Watch out for prospective clients who use pressure tactics, such as those who demand that you put aside all other cases to handle their matter first. You can recognize this type by their unjustified stipulations that the suit be filed "today!". These clients usually overwhelm a law firm or attorney with phone calls over small details.

5. Attitude: Beware of prospective clients with bad attitudes toward lawyers and the legal system. Lawyer bashing to your face, even when done in a joking manner, may show a hidden disdain or contempt for the law, judges, and/or lawyers. These are people with whom it would be difficult to establish a bond of trust, which is the cornerstone of the attorney-client relationship.

6. Know-it-all: Be careful when prospective clients suggests that they know the process better than the attorney, or that they want the attorney to act as an automaton on their behalf. A recent malpractice claim arose because a client's girlfriend who had taken a couple of law classes in college had the client tell his attorney how to run the case.

7. Misguided motives: Avoid prospective clients who can't articulate what they want to achieve. They may have psychological needs or ulterior motives in seeking representation. Prospective clients who seek revenge are unlikely to be happy with the limited results that the legal system provides. Their disappointment may lead to a resentment of you, which can manifest itself in collection difficulties.

8. Fee nitpickers: Watch out for prospective clients who make legal fees and costs a major issue. Suits against clients for unpaid legal fees are a prime source for malpractice claims. Prospective clients who can't or won't discuss or agree on fees, or who won't sign a fee agreement should be suspect. Prospective clients who want to start now and pay later, or nitpick over the fee, may be signaling a subsequent fee dispute or claim.

9. Expertise: Don't take matters that are outside of your normal areas of expertise. Cases in areas of law that the firm has little or no experience in should really trigger a client rejection. Taking a case for the learning experience could also include a lesson in insurance coverage and malpractice claim surcharges!

10. Inducers: Tread carefully with prospective clients who use other matters as an inducement. When prospective clients allude to other work or other benefits in handling their case, it may be a sign that they know the downside of their case better than the attorney does. Promises to give a firm more business "down the road" or to supply lots of referrals or high profile visibility from taking a case is really just a sales pitch.

When reviewing prospective clients, it's essential that you take the initiative from the very beginning. Don't rush your initial meeting with a prospect. Make sure you are both on the same page before moving forward. Choosing the right clients will not only continue to make your practice profitable, (and help you avoid claims cases), but will also ensure that your practice remains enjoyable.

About The Author

Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, coaches lawyers to increased revenues and greater profits. He is a law practice management consultant and best-selling author. For more information, call (800) 837-5880 or e-mail You can also visit Ed on the Web at

Copyright © 2002 American Immigration LLC, ILW.COM