Monday, July 23, 2007

Spotting difficult or unpleasant clients

I had a call today and turned away a prospective client because I picked up on signals that made me uncomfortable. One very difficult thing for lawyers is deciding which clients we don't want. It's very important, because unpleasant clients require a lot more work than pleasant clients. It's often difficult to do but sometimes we're lucky and we pick up on the warning signs.

Today's caller had a warning sign right off the bat. I recognized his name and he had called a week earlier. My instructions to potential clients is always that they do not need to call back. If you want to hire us, make payment and get us your paperwork, and we'll take care of the rest.

The fact that this gentleman was calling back was a subtle and minor hint he might be a problem. Sometimes, of course, there's a good reason for calling back.

Anyway, the second warning sign was much bigger. It's when a prospective client asks a question and is not satisfied with the answer. This client wanted to know how he would be sure we're taking care of things. I told him we would be in touch with him and all the things I generally tell people that we do to make sure. This was not enough, but I couldn't figure out what he was looking for in an answer from me.

Something he said, and I don't remember exactly what it was, I took as an insult. Essentially his question (again, I don't remember exactly what he said) implied that we don't do a good job for all our clients and that he wanted to make sure we were going to do a good job on his case.

This made our conversation much shorter. I explained to him why his question was insulting. He did not disagree, but insisted on his question and threatened not to hire me if I didn't provide a satisfactory answer. I still didn't know what he was looking for, and at that point I didn't care. I told him to hire another lawyer.

My experience with callers like that in the past suggests to me that this guy would call our office repeatedly and harass me and my staff. Aside from this being unpleasant, it also distracts us from doing our work, on that client's file and for all of our other clients. I actually saw this the other day at my bank, where the bank manager was on a call with an obviously difficult client, and this kept him from helping me open a new account. Fortunately for him and the bank (and me), I was happy to leave my paperwork and we resolved the details over the phone.

We are fortunate in our office. We get enough business that I don't hesitate to turn away unpleasant clients when I see the warning signs. For other attorneys, who do not have enough business, it's harder to turn away those clients. And even for us, we often do not see any warning signs until we've already accepted the client.

Today's call involved a speeding ticket case. The vast majority of our traffic clients are easy to work with and appreciate our work for them. We do represent criminal defendants, and it is a reality of that business that some clients are really not good people. I've actually been surprised that even in this area, most of our clients are decent, even the ones who are "guilty."

While I'm on the topic, I forgot to mention the caller last night, after 10 pm, who wanted to know if it was legal for them to let their kids ride motorcycles. I tried to find out what made her think I could answer that question. She said something about my website. I have a page on motorcycle accidents, and we do handle traffic cases, but this does not sound like something you call a lawyer for. When I told her that she called back and left another message saying that I was rude to her and she was going to report me. Not sure who I get reported to for that, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

I know, woe is me. Poor Warren, having to suffer with a few odd phone calls. Yes, I will get past it. Hey, I gotta complain about something, right?
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