Some attorneys hold that “there is no bad business,” or feel compelled to adhere to the “I-don’t-turn-down-business” imperative in order to keep their practices going. This practice may, however, lead to financial difficulties and/or working long, uncompensated hours. A successful private practice must develop a client base that pays for your services. Clients who are willing to pay are more likely to recognize, appreciate and value the expertise, experience and efficiency you are providing.
Obviously, the first step in creating a solid base of desirable clients is a marketing program targeted to those that need and can pay for your services. Marketing, however, only attracts prospective clients. It is up to the attorney to screen prospective clients to determine the compatibility of their needs, expectations, ability to pay, and even personality with what the attorney wishes and is able to do. Qualified clients are typically those who demonstrate that they value and respect the attorney and that they are willing and able to pay for the attorney’s services. Indications that a client may not qualify are well known: (1) the client has had multiple attorneys before you, (2) the client demands immediate action, or has an important deadline that’s about to pass; (3) the client is unwilling to pay an initial consultation fee; or (4) the client is unwilling to pay the retainer, in whole or part.
You, the lawyer, can weed out prospective clients that create higher risk, lower return, and more stress by simply asking a series of qualifying questions in the in-take interview. If the prospective client “passes” and you decide to accept the client, then you must clearly communicate the terms of the engagement and the amount of the retainer you require. This is the “engagement agreement” or “fee agreement” and must be written and signed before you start the engagement. The failure of the client to sign an engagement agreement or to pay the required retainer is an immediate tip-off that the client is NOT qualified and should not be accepted. A qualified client will work with you in a professional manner, will trust your professionalism, and will pay a significant retainer based upon the value of the services to be provided.
An attorney must guard against the temptation to take whatever money a prospective client offers without regard to the long term commitment they are thereby making to the client. Not all business is good business, and clients who are unwilling to pay now will likely be unwilling to pay later, with an inevitable dispute about fees and value of services to follow. In the end, you may have to choose between working for free, or refusing to work. Eventually, the failure to work for free will result in a malpractice claim or a complaint to the board of bar overseers. The lack of merit of such claims does not diminish the cost or inconvenience of having to respond.
Success requires that you exercise discretion, good judgment, and self-respect by accepting only qualified clients. Resist the temptation to accept unqualified clients. Use your time productively by marketing your firm or spending time with family and friends.