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The Importance Of A First Date

So you now have a law degree. You have passed the bar exam. You even have your own office, replete with desk, waiting area, business cards and all the regalia of professional status. It is time to meet and greet potential clients.

Feels sort of like a first date, doesn't it?

Of course, you put your best foot forward when meeting a client in a potential civil case for the first time. But who is interviewing whom?

Your client is shopping for a lawyer, but, unless you view yourself as shopping, too, you are likely to make a costly mistake. Recall this one simple piece of advice each and every time you interview a person looking for a lawyer: No one has a right to your time.

You are in the business of selling your talents and time to strangers. Some clients want lawyers, that is advocates and counselors. But some want props to work out unresolved pyschic issues. The narcissist wants constant reassurance and validation; the hysteric wants attention and will prompt one crisis after another to get it; the sociopath wants a hammer to use against others regardless of the merits or lack of merits of her case.

Learning to distinguish between clients with needs you can fulfill as opposed to those with needs no one can meet will determine to a significant degree your satisfaction with the practice of law.

Assume that clients, too, are putting their best faces on in the initial meeting. If you are uneasy on the first date, assume that things will only get worse.

Telltale signs of trouble:

1.  Potential client calls wanting "my free consultation." Unless you advertise that you will provide such a thing, run. This is entitlement calling. No one has a constitutional right to your time.

2.  Client tells you:  "It is all right here in the documents. All you have to do is go to court."  This client is most likely a narcissistic creep who will not listen to you, or hear your counsel. Run. Tell the client he may well be right. Advise him to test his theory by filing the action himself. That way he doesn't have to share the fee.

3.  Client tells you: "My case is worth millions." Some cases are, so be careful here. But most aren't. This is especially so in the employment context where all you are hearing is the plaintiff's side. Things often look far different to the defendants. Many is the employment case in which a plaintiff's lawyer understands after six or so months exactly why the client was fired or not promoted: it shouldn't take prolongued negotiations with your client to get interrogatories signed, depositions scheduled, documents produced, or legal strategy explained. You and your staff can waste days on these sorts of non-issues.

4.  Client insists on telling you which of his rights were violated. I once failed to listen to a client who kept contending his human rights were violated. Funny thing is, we don't have human rights at law in the United States. Client never heard what I had to say about difficulties in proving statutory and constitutional violations. Lots of time down the sinkhole on this one. Remember, you are the lawyer here.

5.  Client offers more money. Oh, to have back the time wasted on files in which I initially rejected the case, and the client upped the ante. I say, it is a difficult case, and odds are against you. Client says, well, I am willing to gamble. You quote fee designed to scare client away. Client takes out check book. You foolishly accept retainer. The most important word in a litigator's vocabulary? No. Trust your gut. If a case looks bad at your standard fee, it should look no better when the fee is doubled or tripled.

6. Client doesn't listen. You explain the law governing a proposed case. You explain the defenses. You parse the facts presented and tell the client the strengths and weaknesses of the case. The client then proceeds to regurgitate all that you have said, but without having acknolwedged any of the weaknesses of his case. Say no. This is the sort of client who will try to tell you what is and is not relevant in discovery, what torts to pursue, how to brief your issues, etc.

7.  Finally, don't assume a case has merit because another lawyer has referred it. This is the biggest mistake a young lawyer can make. Veterans know all about "sticky" potential clients. These are folks who won't get off the phone. How do you get rid of them without being rude? Refer them to the young hotshot down the road. Question: If the case was really so good don't you think the referring lawyer would have kept it, or asked for a referral fee?

The selection of a client in a civil case is like the selection of a spouse. You will go through a lot together. If during or after the first date you find yourself wanting to run for the door, heed that insight and do so. Some of the most expensive mistakes young lawyers make come in the form of accepting a fee from a client who won't listen to you, and then proceeds to drive you and your staff to distraction.