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Saying No to Clients

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One little word can make a big difference.

Executive Summary

Not every new client is right for your practice. Sometimes you have an ethical duty to decline the representation. Other times, you have to deliver bad news to an existing client. Or you have to give them advice they don’t want to hear. Candid counsel – which means saying no when necessary – is a key to building a safe and successful practice.  The lesson is “not all business is good business”.

Saying No is Good for Business

You can’t be all things to all clients. Some are just not a good match for your practice.

Their case lacks merit, or you’ve never handled a matter in the subject area. Perhaps you don’t have the time, resources and staffing to do the job efficiently. Or you have a conflict of interest.

In these situations, you have an ethical duty to say no. This can be difficult for a lawyer trained to help people and hungry for work.

But saying no can be a savvy business decision. You won’t waste time getting up to speed in a case you shouldn’t have taken in the first place. You can turn your attention to matters you’re good at and can make money on.

Know when and how to tell clients hard truths. They may not want to hear it, but you have a duty to tell them anyway.

Alta Pro Practice Pointers

  1. Be a counselor. It’s easy to reflexively say yes to a client’s wishes and instructions – especially if they’re a paying client with a good case. But your job is to give independent, professional counsel, not to be an enabler.
  2. The best time to say no is before they become a client. It’s not easy to turn down work. But you will be doing yourself – and your malpractice carrier – a favor by screening prospects before taking them on as clients.
  3. Recognize the warning signs of problem clients. They were previously represented by other lawyers who didn’t work out. Their expectations are unreasonable. Their objectives are offensive. They can’t pay you. They are angry and out for revenge. They think their case is a slam dunk. They don’t listen to you. The thought of having to work with them for the next year gives you a sinking feeling.
  4. Be upfront about your limitations. If you are appointed counsel or are otherwise ethically obligated to take the case, advise the client of any limitations on your experience, ability or resources.
  5. It’s okay to branch out into a new practice area. If you want to take a case but lack expertise, tell the client and let them make the decision. Document your disclosure and the client’s assent. Consider associating experienced co-counsel. Do what is necessary to achieve competence, but don’t bill your client for the time and expense to do so.
  6. Refer the client to another lawyer. You might be able to collect a portion of the fee (check your state and local rules) or assist in the case to gain experience. And you can ask the lawyer to reciprocate by sending you business in the future.
  7. Let clients know what you can and cannot do for them. You’re not a miracle worker, and you shouldn’t allow yourself to become weaponized. If your client’s expectations as to your role or possible outcomes are out of line, set them straight.
  8. Document your file. When you deliver bad news, put it in writing. Document the underlying issues, the immediate concerns, and your opinion and recommendations. If you turn down a potential client, don’t play judge and jury. Avoid giving an opinion as to the merits of their case. Explain why you can’t help them. Point out any looming deadlines or urgent issues. Advise them to seek other counsel if they want another opinion.
  9. Don’t punish a client for not following your advice. Sometimes clients don’t listen. You might advise them to accept a plea, take a settlement or even abandon their case. Explain your rationale and give them time to consider. They may choose otherwise. If you can ethically continue as counsel, keep representing them to the best of your ability. Be careful not to sabotage their case, perhaps in subtle ways. Sometimes lawyers would rather be right than win.

The Bottom Line: Saying yes may be gratifying, but sometimes saying no is more important.

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