Nine kinds of clients to avoid

By David Baugher

The Daily Record Newswire

ST. LOUIS, MO -- If Michael Downey has a rule on when not to take a client, he learned it a decade ago.

It was on the simplest of cases - a name change for two children. He asked around and was told the matter could probably be handled in chambers.

''The judge came out in his robe and said, 'Mr. Downey, call your first witness,''' recalled Downey, who hadn't known formal proceedings would be necessary.

''What happened was that a name change was no big deal. An appointment of 'next friend' for the name change was apparently a much bigger deal.''

Downey, now a partner in the St. Louis office of Hinshaw and Culbertson, eventually handled the matter.

But in the interim, the rookie attorney got a weeklong nightmare of paperwork and confusion and a lasting lesson: Not every client who walks through the door should be represented by you when he or she walks out.

The client who comes bearing a case outside your area of expertise is one type to avoid. But there are other clients to watch out for, as well.

As much as any professional hates to turn away business, especially in tough times, sometimes it's the best policy. Doing otherwise can lead to endless headaches, unpaid invoices and even malpractice claims.

Downey, who has just authored the book ''Introduction to Law Firm Practice,'' has a wealth of experience on the issue of screening for problem cases.

In fact, his area of specialty is working with attorneys and accountants on risk management issues.

''If lawyers ever got really good at selecting clients, I'd have less work,'' he says.

Here are nine kinds of clients to avoid:

1. The 'death or glory' client.

One warning sign any attorney should look for in a new client is a grudge, says Ed Poll, of LawBiz Consulting in Venice, Calif.

''Are they seeking to kill the other side?'' he asks. ''Are they looking for a hammer when a scalpel might work? If you are the scalpel, then you might not want to take that matter.''

2. The client who doesn't 'feel' right.

Attorneys often can smell disaster coming. If something seems amiss about the client, move on.

''They really need to rely on their gut instincts,'' says Steve Couch, vice-president of claims for The Bar Plan, which offers professional liability insurance coverage.

''Evaluate a prospective client just from an ability to get along with them. Is the client uncontrollable? Belligerent? In other words, is he or she the kind of individual who is going to be difficult to control and may be resistant to following legal advice?''

3. The conspiracy theorist.

Everybody has that one crazy acquaintance who seems to think the world is out to get him - literally. That person may make for a colorful and interesting friend, but don't let him become a client.

''If they start telling me that the judges are working with the FBI and the Russian secret police, I'm just not there,'' Downey says.

''My usual answer is that everything you're telling me may be absolutely true, but it's really not a case that I'm prepared to handle.''

Take on such an eccentric client and you take on another problem, too.

''Odds are at some point they are going to believe that you are working with the Russian secret police, too,'' Downey added.

4. The untrustworthy client.

Sometimes, especially in criminal defense work, attorneys work with clients whose history is checkered. Buyer beware.

''When you look at what results in the largest claims against law firms, it's almost always the dishonest clients,'' Downey says.

''They've done studies, and the really large judgments against law firms tend to come from a client who engages in fraud and the lawyers are accused of aiding and abetting the fraud.''

5. The overly confident client.

Think twice about the client who seems far more certain of the outcome than you are.

Make sure he has a strong sense of what can reasonably be achieved through your representation.

''If clients are convinced that they have a no-lose case, that's another red flag,'' Couch says.

''We all know that with litigation comes risk of loss. If clients do not recognize that risk, then it's likely that they are going to be looking for somebody to blame if it occurs.''

6. The overly principled client.

Clients often say that it's the principle of the matter, not the money.

Changes of heart on this point can lead to shifting expectations and demands. Attorneys should be aware of this.

''At some point, the reality is that after they've spent about $100,000, it's going to be about the money,'' Downey says.

7. The established deadbeat.

The best indicator of the future is the past. The client you need to reject the most may be the one you already have - especially if he or she isn't paying the bills. Don't throw good work down the hole.

''Your first loss is your best loss,'' says Poll, author of ''Getting Paid: Collecting Your Fee from Intake to Invoice.''

''Do not keep doing work for a client who doesn't pay you. Don't expect them to pay you a larger bill when they couldn't pay you the smaller one.''

8. The lawyer switcher.

Couch warns that if a client has a habit of hiring and firing attorneys, then expect him to continue that pattern with you, as well.

The corollary also is true. ''If a case has a history of lawyers withdrawing from or declining the representation, there's usually a reason for that,'' he says.

9. The serial filer.

People who sue a lot can be high-risk clients, Couch says.

''A similar concern is whether a client just has a history of being extremely litigious,'' he says.

''If that's the case, it certainly doesn't bode well if the client believes the attorney made a mistake. The lawyer can be the target of the next lawsuit that's filed.''

Published: Thu, Sep 9, 2010