How to Decline Client Engagements with Grace

kicking someone outI’ve written about warning signs that a potential new client is a train wreck waiting to happen. If you pay attention to such warnings, then you may find yourself wondering just how to turn someone away without creating offense. That’s just what one of my clients struggled with recently.

How NOT to Turn Away a Client

Attorneys have a variety of ways that they handle potentially undesirable clients. Here are 3 methods that I do NOT recommend using to decline the representation.

1. Quote a high retainer.

Some lawyers suggest that you require a very high retainer or high hourly rate, which will probably scare the client away. However, what will you do if they pull out their checkbook, ready to pay your high fees? At least you’ll get paid handsomely for dealing with a difficult client, say those folks. We’ve all dealt with difficult clients before at standard or even discounted rates, so this would be an improvement.

I think there are already enough stressful aspects to the practice of law without taking on clients that your gut tells you to avoid. You may wind up with demanding and unreasonable clients, who now have a high expectation of getting what they want because they are “paying through the nose” for it. Those “Grade C and D” clients tend to take up more of your time, leaving less time to render excellent service to the “Grade A” clients that you want more of. Your stress and irritation also negatively affects how you deal with everyone else, including those at home. On top of all that, some difficult clients will never be satisfied and are more likely to file a grievance.

But what if you really need the money this month? Should you go for the higher rate and just bear with that unpleasant personality? Jerry Tidwell Jr., a family law practitioner in McKinney, Texas, gave some good advice in a Facebook discussion group. He said,

“While I am not saying you have to like or be friends with your clients, I do think you have to empathize with their circumstance in order to adequately or zealously represent [them]. I don’t think empathy can come from thinking of clients as just paychecks….In that transaction there will never be honest or frank discussions, and always be distrust in both client and attorney. All are best served if attorneys turned away fees that gave them an uncomfortable feeling.”

2. Tell them you have a conflict.

This might discourage their interest in your services, but it also might raise suspicion and lead to more questions. More importantly, it involves lying, which I do not advocate. Rule 8.4 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct provides that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

3. Don’t worry about offense. Just tell them it’s not a good fit.

Some lawyers say that we need to get beyond trying to be nice, because that’s what often causes us to wind up with undesirable clients in the first place. That perspective assumes that you have to choose between being be considerate and holding a boundary. You can stand firm with utmost kindness.

When your gut is already telling you that the client could be trouble, in this age of social media, an offended potential client might damage your reputation by venting to the world. I would even suggest that the abruptness of some lawyers has given our profession a bad name, making things more difficult for all of us. We need to remember that most clients come to us because they have a stressful situation and need our help, even though they themselves may not be very admirable in the way they deal with their suspicions and fears during their interactions with us.

How to Hold Your Boundary Kindly

First remember that the main thing the client wants is a solution to their problem. They actually want someone who will be comfortable working with their personality and their problem, and who can get them the best results possible. Chances are that if you aren’t comfortable, they aren’t really either. If you know someone who would like to handle their matter, you are being of ultimate service to both attorney and client in making a referral.

Elizabeth Stanley Pagel, a bankruptcy attorney in Humble, Texas says it this way:

“I appreciate you coming in to see me today, but I don’t think I would be the best attorney to represent you. I’d be happy to give you some names of other attorneys in the area who might be a better fit for you.”

Some attorneys make reference to their schedules, which won’t allow them to take “this kind of case.” That is true because you won’t allow your schedule to be derailed by a low fee case or the undue attention a demanding, overly needy or deceitful client will likely require, even if your main focus will be on networking and marketing for good new clients. Others may reference some aspect of the matter that another attorney may have more experience in or more familiarity with the local rules or judges.

I, myself, occasionally receive calls from potential clients that don’t feel like a good fit because (i) I think they would clash with my style, (ii) they want a lot of exceptions to my preferred schedule, (iii) they would require a lot of extra work on my part, or (iv) they need expertise outside my wheelhouse of talents. I refer them to other lawyer-coaches because I know I can do a better job for clients that I look forward to helping. I truly want them to have the right fit. By expressing my care and concern for their interests, I’m able to decline the engagement without giving offense or creating negative repercussions.

When you convey that you have their best interests in mind, clients are likely to appreciate your integrity and respect you for directing them elsewhere, instead of just taking their money. Some lawyers have actually received good referrals from clients they turned away! Just remember to do your CYA by sending a non-engagement letter or email reminding them of potential statutes of limitations, and wishing them luck in their endeavors.

I would love to receive your input. If you have successfully turned potential clients away (or wish that you had), I invite you to share your experience and advice below in the comments.

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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3 comments on “How to Decline Client Engagements with Grace

  • Debra:

    Sage counsel, indeed, counselor.

    Over the years, we’ve identified specific key traits in potential clients for our market segment (wireless site leasing; fiber optic agreements; telecom lease enforcements) that alert us to the strong likelihood of a problem client later on.

    Overall, we decline about 5% of the potential clients that contact us, including some who are referred by current or past clients (which has its own set of potential and interesting repercussions when it happens).

    When we decline a client engagement, we send a non-engagement letter to the x-PC via Certified Mail (we tell the declined potential client that it’s coming, and that its our firm policy to send them via certified mail). It’s absolutely worth the $5 certified mail/return receipt fee today to provide us with a strong defense later to the x-PC who might claim s/he IS a client of the firm, just not with any written fee agreement.

    Jonathan L. Kramer, Esq.
    Telecom Law Firm, P.C.
    Los Angeles, California

  • Really like the article. Pretty much a page out of our own playbook in terms of being compassionate with potential clients, even difficult ones.

    One query: your #2 “do not use” says not to say one has a conflict, and presumes that would be a falsehood. I’m assuming you mean when one does not exist, as it’s perfectly acceptable to be truthful when a conflict has arisen.

    Thanks for the reaffirmation.

  • It’s a great post. I think coming straight forward and saying it’s not the right fit and won’t work at all is a better option.

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