Screening Clients

Whether you are a seasoned attorney or new to the legal profession, you can never be too careful in creating a systematic approach to screening clients. Establishing and implementing an effective client screening system can significantly reduce the risk of a grievance or malpractice claim.

Failure to screen clients appropriately is a common factor in malpractice claims, a very distressing experience for any attorney, particularly a new practitioner. One of the most effective ways to screen clients is to be an active and effective listener. The following is a list of some of the issues to keep in mind before agreeing to represent a new client.

Clients who cannot afford to pay for your legal services

At one time or another in their careers, all practitioners will consider taking on a client who may or may not be able to afford legal services.

Some practitioners think it is better to get paid something, rather than not take a case at all. As tempting as this may be, I would advise caution when considering representing clients who cannot afford your legal services from the onset. During the initial consultation, one of the issues you should discuss with potential clients is their ability to pay for legal services. The client has a right to understand the financial obligations involved in legal representation and you have a right to know if the potential client has the ability or inclination to pay for your legal services. If a potential client does not have the means to afford your legal services, you have some choices: you can (a) refer them to the local bar association, where they may be able to find legal service providers on a sliding scale, (b) take the case on a limited scope basis, thereby providing discrete legal services that the client can afford to pay on an item by item basis, (c) take the case on its merits, knowing you might not be fully paid, or (d) refuse the case, as collecting the fees will be time- consuming and difficult, if not impossible.

Potential Clients who are close friends or relatives

Although friends and relatives can be a good source for referrals, especially new attorneys establishing their practices, there are a few nuances to keep in mind. When the potential client is a close friend or family member, as attorneys, we find it difficult to say no to them because we feel we owe it to them to assist with their legal matter. However, the risk in representing close friends and family members is that there is a tendency to take on legal matters which may be outside our normal scope of practice. Furthermore, it may be also difficult, if not impossible, to provide the client with impartial advice, as it is often problematic for the attorney to maintain the necessary detachment. Lastly, due to the close connection, family and friends may not fully disclose personal information pertinent to their case.

Clients with unreasonable expectations or time frames

When screening the client, carefully consider the client’s expectations and your ability to reasonably fulfill their expectations given the facts of the case and the law. It is very challenging to satisfy a client with unrealistic expectations. In addition, one should also avoid making statements that would cause a potential client to have unreasonable expectations. The time to deal with a potential client’s expectation is at the onset of legal representation.

Honestly assess the client’s legal matter and advice accordingly, even if there is a potential risk that your advice may lead the potential client to seek legal representation elsewhere.

Clients with legal matters inappropriate for the size and scope of your law practice

As tempting as it may be to take every case that comes through your office, you can never be too careful in undertaking a matter that is beyond your area of expertise or more complex than matters you are reasonably able to handle. When deciding whether to take a case, consider whether you have the skills, expertise and more importantly the time needed to devote to the matter.

If you decide to take on a case that is outside the realm of your normal everyday practice, be prepared to crack the books and seek advice from other attorneys who are more experienced in the area of law pertaining to the case. By planning carefully, doing appropriate research, and seeking advice from other experienced attorneys, you can avoid malpractice claims and damage to your practice and reputation.

When turning down potential clients, take the time to fully explain to them why you cannot represent them in their legal matters, but don’t stop there. Take the extra step of referring the client to another attorney who might be able to assist them or the Lawyer Referral Service of your local Bar Association.

If the potential client cannot afford an attorney, the Lawyer Referral staff can offer self-help resources or refer the client to a free or reduced cost community organization. From personal experience, when unable to take a client’s case for any reason, I have taken the time to make the client feel that while I was not able to handle the case personally, I still cared about their legal matter by taking the extra step of providing the client with other options for legal assistance.

Clients Who Want to Change Their Current Lawyer

If in the course of your interview with the potential client, you determine that the prospective client has had problems with several other attorneys, it is a major indicator that you are likely to have problems with this client in the course of your legal representation. It is best to avoid any problems by respectfully declining legal representation.

As many experienced attorneys have told me, the single most important factor to consider when screening clients is to “listen to your gut.” If, after utilizing an effective screening process which includes all of the above factors, your assessment of the potential client is not favorable, you should consider declining to represent the individual in their legal matter. It might just be a bad fit, but it might be something more. Avoid the temptation to take the case, despite having a bad feeling during your initial screening due to the need to work or because you feel compelled to help the individual.

By taking the time to spot some of the above-mentioned issues during your initial screen of potential clients, you can avoid potential grievances and malpractice claims.

Spojmie Nasiri is the principal attorney at the Law Office of Spojmie Nasiri, which practices immigration law exclusively. Her many pro bono and volunteer activities include the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California, Davis, the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Stanford University, the Afghan Coalition in Fremont, as well as the Lawyers in the Library program for the Contra Costa and Alameda County Bar Associations.

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