The Case of The Client Who Knew Too Much

This guest post was written by Jay Reeves for Lawyers Mutual Liability Insurance Company of North Carolina.

forest-pathA little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Especially when dealing with clients.

Make no mistake – it is a pleasure to work with intelligent people. It makes our job easier when we represent clients who do their homework and ask smart questions.

But there is a fine line between being actively engaged and wanting to run the show.

Case Study: The Client Who Knew Too Much.

Lawyer Smith had a solo practice that specialized in family law. She worked hard and cared about her clients. One day a potential client showed up for representation in a divorce and custody matter. The prospect arrived at the initial interview carrying a large box stuffed with files from the two lawyers who had previously worked on his case.

Naturally, this raised a red flag. Smith had been around long enough to be wary of prospects with a penchant for hiring and firing attorneys. She also knew that jumping into a case mid-stream was risky.

But this situation was different. There was a reasonable explanation as to why the two prior engagements had not worked out. The client’s first lawyer had passed away. The second was known to be a practitioner of marginal competence. Besides, this client was educated and articulate – and he showed up with checkbook in hand.

So she accepted his case.

And that was her first mistake.

Beware Clients Who Embrace Junk Law

Included in the file was a thick folder of “legal research” done by the client himself. Most of it came from dubious Internet sites, online forums and chat rooms. Some of it was plucked from thin air.

And the client was just getting started. Over the next few weeks he bombarded Smith with phone calls, emails and unannounced office visits. He forwarded web links and blog posts. He peppered her with instructions about how his case should be handled.

Then came the first court hearing. Throughout the proceeding, her client made faces, tugged on her sleeve, passed urgent notes and distracted her from doing her job.

Somehow, despite her client’s pushy and overbearing nature, she stuck with the case and managed to see it through to conclusion.

The day she finally closed the file she felt like a prisoner just released from jail. Until the phone rang. It was him of course – demanding that she file a motion for a change in visitation.

Tips for Taming the Know-it-All Client

  • Select your cases with care. You do not have to accept every client that comes in the door, no matter how needy, sympathetic or wealthy they might be. In fact, you sometimes have an ethical obligation to say “no.”
  • Protect yourself. Poor client screening is a major cause of legal malpractice claims and ethics complaints, says the ABA.
  • Learn to spot red flags. Warning signs include clients with wildly unrealistic expectations, clients who have been turned down by every other lawyer in the local bar, clients who have fired and/or sued every other lawyer in the local bar and clients who have watched far too many episodes of People’s Court.
  • Weigh the risks and benefits. Make a list of the pros and cons of a prospective case. Decline clients who are likely to cause trouble down the road.
  • Stand your ground. You are the one with the law degree. Act like it. Cede control of the case to your client at your own peril.
  • Use written engagement agreements. A well-drafted agreement will establish boundaries and set out the client’s goals with specificity.
  • Turn away clients who are full of sound and fury. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but it is poor justification for legal action. Clients who demonize the other party – or the judicial system in general – will never be satisfied.
  • Cash counts. Prospects who say “this is not about the money” are lying.
  • Get out while you can. Withdraw from representation when appropriate and ethical to do so.

And trust your gut. A rotten apple will not regain freshness. Pick sweet apples only – and enjoy!

Jay Reeves has been a lawyer since 1981.Over the years he has worked as a risk manager, legal reporter and solo practitioner. For 10 years he concentrated in representing attorneys and judges in professional licensing, ethics and malpractice matters. Tales from the Liability Files are taken from actual cases he encountered over the decades. Some are humorous, others sad, but all are instructive. Contact, phone 919-619-2441.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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2 comments on “The Case of The Client Who Knew Too Much

  • I remember we had a client who had a lot of money and the size of the retainer was enticing as we were fairly new (maybe a year old). When he came in he wanted to take over our office for phone calls and set up a ‘home away from home’ and much more. He ‘knew’ everything and wanted to direct the strategy. He was with us a week before we fired him. We were smart. The reason I say this is there are less than savory clients who actually will seek out newer attorneys, entice them with dollars, direct the strategy (they’ve been down this road before) and then claim ineffective counsel and sue your butt afterwards. It’s really important to assess the situation and if you are unsure, run the scenario by a more experienced colleague before you get in too deep.

  • I had a medical marijuana case once where there was an excellent opportunity for a suppression motion. In my jurisdiction, that’s typically done as part of the preliminary examination.

    In the run-up to the prelim, the client constantly called to complain that I wasn’t filing certain motions he’d heard about from this or that other person. All the motions were inappropriate. One was a motion to appeal from the result of a hearing that hadn’t even happened yet.

    I offered more than once to return his money, so he could hire the other attorneys he was allegedly getting his information regarding my failings from. The last time I did that, he said, “No. [The attorney in question] said you’re the Master of Motions.” I asked why he was bothering me with things this (and other attorneys) allegedly said I should be doing differently.

    After that, I ignored him. His primary beef was that I wasn’t putting on a “medical marijuana defense.” As I advertise as a “medical marijuana lawyer” in addition to criminal defense, he couldn’t understand this.

    When I won his case because the judge suppressed the evidence on my motion, though, I was suddenly the greatest attorney in the world. He even tried to convince me that I should move to another area of the state so I could get more cases like his.

    More cases like his….

    I didn’t move. ;)

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