One of the greatest skills a decade of commercial litigation has allowed me to develop is the ability to identify (and thusly avoid) potential “problem clients”. It’s a skill that transcends law, and applies to any service-based industry that requires an individual to deal with the public. On a personal level, I err on the side of caution, which may have caused me to avoid some potential clients who might not have turned out to be bona fide problem clients. But one bad encounter taught me that an ounce of prevention is worth a metric ton of cure.

I have noticed three hallmark traits / characteristics of the potentially problem client.

  • They are quick to flattery

I have had people cold-call me, tell me how they read my bio, looked me up online, and know I am the one for them. They say “flattery will get you everywhere”. But when someone you have never met is already singing your praises, when they assert that you are the only one that can help them, flags should be going up. Big flags. Big red flags. That type of flattery, regardless of how accurate it may be (wink wink), is in fact not merit-based. Although superficially about me, it is in fact not about me at all. It is about the client. It is an attempt to distract me from something about them – be it personality problems, or problems with their case.

  • It’s never their fault

First off, if you are not their first lawyer (or service provider), flags should already be going up. The more people that have come before you, the more flags. And with the problem client, it is never their fault. Their previous lawyers were always incompetent. Scoundrels. Liars. Thieves. Cheats. Everyone they deal with is of bad faith. They continually get exploited by others and only learn about it after the fact, hence why they are now meeting with you. And they are so lucky to have met you because they know you’re different. You are the one who can solve all of their problems (see point above).

There’s a great French expression: le passé est garant de l’avenir. The past is the guarantor (or predictor) of the future. It’s the same reason why you should never speak ill of your previous employers during a job interview. If every lawyer before them was a liar, cheat and scoundrel, sure as sugar you will be the most recent liar, cheat and/or scoundrel in their long line of scoundrels when they meet with their next lawyer. Probably after having stiffed you on your invoice to boot…

  • It’s always an emergency

You’re probably starting to see a trend here… You’re smart and talented, and they absolutely need you. They are the victim in the situation they find themselves, and it’s the fault of everyone who came before them. And it’s an emergency. They need you now. No time to think. No time for get references or background checks. No time to talk to their previous lawyer(s). It’s an emergency (and incidentally, the overwhelming majority of the time, it’s nowhere near an emergency).

All three of these indicators have the same ultimate objective: to serve as a diversion from the person themselves. And while keeping them in mind may produce the occasional false positive, it’s worth it to err on the side of caution. There is no amount of money that is worth a problem client – in law or any other industry. There’s the old 80-20 paradigm – 20 percent of your clients produce 80 percent of your income. Well, when it comes to problem clients, it’s 1-99. It only takes one to cause excessive amounts of difficulties that are as much of an emotional drain as an economic one.

Some other less determinate indicators:

  • Clients who don’t want to give you a retainer. In my practice, 90 percent of the clients who I ended up having payment difficulties with were the ones who were reluctant, or refused, to provide a retainer.
  • Litigious clients (i.e. clients who have been involved in high numbers of lawsuits, either as plaintiff or defendant). This is where a $20 investment in court docket research could pay dividends in terms of saved time. Everyone – even if they are not a lawyer – should reflexively do this search for any potential client.
  • Clients who repeatedly promise you future business if you reduce your current rate. If someone does not value your time and expertise today, they won’t value it tomorrow.

There’s more, but this post has gotten too long. But before I go, here’s my attempt at salt-baking fish. And the Easter Egg Hunt fun I had with the neighbourhood kids over the weekend. And my daughter and I heroically rescuing two earthworms.

Peace out!