Picking the Wrong Clients? You Can’t Blame the Wreck on the Train*

* Lyrics from the song “You Can’t Blame the Wreck on the Train” by Terri Sharp:

“When the gates are all down
And the signals are flashing
And the whistle is screaming in vain,
And you stay on the tracks, ignoring the facts
Well then, you can’t blame the wreck on the train.”

TrainWreck01Almost all lawyers have rued their decision to take on some client, and with hindsight can recognize the warning signs that they disregarded. Many of us learned our lessons the hard way, but you don’t have to. Well…you probably will learn the hard way that a difficult client can cause you a lot more harm than the lost fees you wind up writing off. But after one such experience, if you ignore these warning signs, then you can’t blame the wreck on the train. Here are 10 flashing signals that your new potential client may be a train wreck waiting to happen.

1. The client contacts you right before the deadline. Often this fire drill is just a harbinger of more fire drills to come. If he didn’t even try to find a lawyer before it was almost too late, will he be likely to utilize better time management habits throughout the representation? How much extra effort will you spend reminding him to provide essential documents to you, to make important decisions, to communicate his decisions to you, to sign something, or to pay your fee? Your good clients or your family will get short shrift because you will find yourself working unexpected hours in order to deal with emergencies he creates. When this kind of client walks through the door, be very vigilant in your assessment. There is a strong risk that the urgency produced by the client’s procrastination can lead you to disregard warning sign #2 listed below.

2. The client tries to get you started on the matter without signing the engagement agreement or paying a retainer, promising to send them later. The client may claim he doesn’t have time to read the agreement right now, or forgot his checkbook. Make it very clear that you are not his lawyer and will not begin work until you have a signed engagement agreement and a retainer in hand. Offer to let him pay by credit card or use your phone or your computer to instigate a wire transfer or online payment, if he wants you to start right away. It is amazing how many times some clients can forget to send the retainer.

3. The client tries to bargain with you about your fees or the retainer. That’s a sign that the client doesn’t respect your work or believe in its value. You will likely experience second guessing, argument and fault-finding from this client. He may skip out on any balance of the fee remaining unpaid when the work is completed.

4. The client can’t afford to pay your full retainer at the start. I frequently see attorneys make the mistake of accepting a reduced retainer, then struggling to get invoices paid. It seems particularly common in family law cases. If your client can’t come up with the money when trying to hire you, do you really think his financial condition will improve after you have already given him your services? Transactional lawyers may believe the client will have the money when the deal closes. They often find that the deal falls through because it was a desperate plan or a poorly conceived idea by an unrealistic client. If you decide to roll the dice with your client anyway, then at least your risk should be compensated with a higher fee structure.

5. The client fired his last attorney. Unfortunately there are attorneys who take engagements they aren’t competent to handle, or who unduly delay in taking action. Your potential client might have been the victim of such behavior. However, you should ask a lot of questions to vet this story, and consider contacting the former attorney before taking the engagement. Many lawyers can tell a regretful story about the representation they took on after a client fired the previous attorney. Here is a case in point:

A trial lawyer took on a plaintiff’s car accident case involving a disabling injury, after the client had fired previous counsel. As the case developed, it turned out that the client had failed to mention a prior accident that the defendant claimed caused plaintiff’s back injury. Defendant offered a $20,000 settlement to avoid trial, which the client declined, believing the case to be worth $1 million. At trial, plaintiff’s lawyer was so effective in cross-examining defendant’s expert that, to the lawyer’s delight and relief, the defendant upped its settlement offer to $100,000. The client still refused to settle. The jury came back with a verdict of $6,000, which did not even cover the expenses incurred by the plaintiff’s attorney.

6. The client seems suspicious of you. If a client does not trust his lawyer, he may withhold information, challenge the lawyer’s strategy, cite contrary opinions from other lawyers who don’t have all the facts, argue about the bill, pay slowly, and otherwise make the representation unpleasant for the lawyer. If your potential client seems unduly suspicious or untrusting, consider saying something like, “You don’t seem entirely comfortable with this process or my representation. Do you have some concerns that we haven’t discussed yet?” If further conversation does not result in a change in attitude, you can say, “It just doesn’t seem like we are really a good fit for working together. Thank you for considering me. I hope you will find other counsel more to your satisfaction.”

7. The client tells you this is a simple matter or a slam dunk case. The “cousin” of this type of client is one that tells you what the law is. Once again, these are signals that the client has unreasonable expectations and doesn’t really know what is involved in the representation. It may also be a warning that the client is a cheapskate. Make a lot of inquiries into the client’s understanding and experience of the matter. Spend some time educating the client about the processes and risks involved. If the client doesn’t seem to have an “aha” experience as you explain things to him, he will probably be disappointed with whatever you do, and complain about the bill.

8. The client brings in an agreement he created, for you to review. This kind of client is trying to minimize fees, but reviewing his document will probably take more time than it would take you to completely draft a new one. It will most likely consist of a hodgepodge of language pulled from different agreements with irreconcilable terms and provisions.

9. The client hasn’t bothered to read the FAQs on your website and didn’t bring the documents you requested. Get ready for lots of headaches with this client. You’ll have to make multiple requests for documents, and you’ll wind up spending time doing what he should have handled himself. Then he’ll complain that your bill is much higher than what his friend paid for similar representation.

10. Your client exhibits a lot of anger or a strong victim mentality with regard to his case. This situation can be difficult to judge, because the client may have been genuinely injured, cheated or otherwise harmed. Excessive blaming or outrage hints that the client tends not to take personal responsibility for his choices, however. He may discount his own accountability for the events leading up to the case. If he doesn’t get results he likes, you may become his next object of blame and attack.


Sometimes, just one of the above facts should be enough to sound the whistle and bring down the crossing gates for you. Certainly, the more of these traits your client evidences, the riskier it is to proceed. Ultimately, the most important warning comes from your own gut. If something just seems off, or you feel uneasy about the client, pay attention to your own flashing signals, and get off the tracks.


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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11 comments on “Picking the Wrong Clients? You Can’t Blame the Wreck on the Train*

  • Excellent post! At my initial prospective client meeting, I explain that I take a holistic approach to how I service clients. I explain that for me “holistic” is a carryover from how I conduct my personal life–regular exercise, whole foods, no processed foods or toxins–a healthy, happy, rewarding lifestyle. And the same holds true for who I take on as a client-no toxins! The analogy has been working for me lately and I’ve gotten good feedback on it too.

    • I like it, Jean! You are sending a clear message that you are not going to take nonsense from your clients and they can decide to work with you or not, modify their behavior or not, but you’ve laid down the ‘law’. Great.

    • Hi Jean, I like your approach very much. it is very important to set up your boundaries up front. That is how i work and also teach my clients doing business in holistic way as well.

  • Thanks Susan-I always say it nice (you know that saying about honey vs. vinegar) as this stance can be taken the wrong way, which would likely mean that the prospect isn’t a good fit anyway.

  • Great article! Many of us sit back and examine our firms in January – what went well and what didn’t. This article provides a ready made list of resolutions for the new year.

    • Deborah, what a good idea about how to use this article. I’m going to suggest to my clients to use it as an audit of their “client hiring” practices over the past year. Thanks for mentioning that!

  • Couldn’t have said it better myself! Trusting your “gut” is often the hardest thing for highly educated lawyers to do, but instinct is very important in weeding out problem clients before you reach the point of no return. Thank you for this helpful and enlightening article!

    • Joan, thanks for your comment. Many of us only come to understand what our gut is quietly telling us about potential clients after making a few mistakes. Then we have to make extra effort to listen, because there is another voice screaming about our overhead, the recession, and other fear-mongering.

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