While it may be difficult to turn away business, you should get into the practice of screening potential clients to make sure the relationship will be a good fit. Client screening ensures that you are minimizing risk by taking on clients and matters that are compatible with your practice.
Some questions to consider when screening a potential client are:
- Does the client's matter fit in your area of practice and competency?
- Does the client have a case? Do they know why they are seeking a lawyer or what they are trying to achieve?
- Will the client's matter require more resources and time than you can commit?
- Is the client able to pay your fees?
- Does the client have the capacity to instruct counsel?
- What do your instincts tell you about the potential client? Does the client have reasonable expectations about timing, outcome, and fees? How many lawyers have they retained before coming to you?
Even if your conflicts check and above questions raise no concerns, you must still consider if it is appropriate for you to act for the client. Could acting for the client raise an appearance of bias? In the case of a friend or family member seeking your help, would acting for them make it difficult to maintain your professional objectivity? Could representing them put a strain on your personal relationship? Would acting for a new client be inadvisable for business reasons? For example, does the client want to make a claim against a party that you may wish to represent in future? Is the client part of an industry you are serving, or an industry in which you wish to act for others?
It goes without saying that you must not accept matters if the client is asking you to break the law or engage in unethical conduct. In addition, you must always verify the identity of clients when you receive a retainer where you instruct on or handle the movement of funds. This reduces the chance that you will be inadvertently used as a conduit for money laundering or fraud. See the Client Identification and Verification Module for more information.
It is acceptable to advise potential clients that you require a couple of days to think about their case, and that you will contact them to advise if you are able to represent them. If you accept a retainer, you may only terminate the retainer for justifiable grounds, as set out in Rule 3.7-1 of the Code.
Lawyers who take on challenging clients because they need the money can end up working and not getting paid, especially if the client is not satisfied with the outcome of their matter. Remember that a dissatisfied client is less likely to pay your fees than a satisfied one. Consider if it is worth taking on a challenging client or complicated file if there is a risk you won’t be paid for your hard work. Also consider that an unreasonable client may sue you for professional negligence or complain about you to the Law Society if unsatisfied with the outcome.
If you decide to accept the client matter, confirm it in writing. Be clear in the letter whether you accept the representation and set out the terms of the retainer in a Retainer Agreement executed by the client or in an engagement letter. These agreements are essential to set out the terms of your representation and compensation, the client’s obligations and expectations, and circumstances that govern termination of the relationship. This is particularly important if you are entering a contingency fee arrangement. (See Code of Conduct, Rule 3.6-2.)
For more information, see When to Say No: 10 Ways to Select and Reject a Client.