In the initial interview with lawyers I am defending, the most repetitive comment is: “I never should have taken that client.” So, stop doing that. Stinky clients, aggressive and unreasonably demanding clients, irrational clients, shady clients, and clients who just don’t pay their bills lead to no good for the lawyers representing them.
Every firm should develop a rigidly followed and routine conflicts check that is done every time and always documented in the file. In a very small office, it could be a sign-off by each lawyer; as you get larger, you need computer-assisted checks. Requiring each lawyer to immediately open a file for conflicts recordation purposes is critical. Working off the books without opening a file in your conflicts system will certainly cause you problems and will definitely cause you conflicts. But by this point, you need to be smelling using your instincts.
The worldwide web can be a good thing and a bad thing. Use it to search the names of potential clients and companies to help weed out those who have public information that would make you not take them as a client. When things go sour with either a crooked or just bankrupt client, the solvent lawyer becomes the target and the claim will be that you “aided and abetted” the wrongdoer, who no doubt has fled the scene or has no assets, or both. A simple internet run by you or a staff person may tip you to a recognized bad actor and prevent you from being their alleged partner in the bad venture.
Clients that decline to pay you a reasonable retainer might well alert you that they would also decline to pay your reasonable bill at the end. Overly aggressive and demanding clients, unreasonably so, can be problems. Lawyers who get in trouble with that type of client typically do not stand up to them or tell them that they are the professional and will abide by the rules regardless of what the client wants. Instead, they knuckle under for fear of losing the money. I submit that is shortsighted and dangerous.
How many times have you heard the saying that your first instinct is often right. Even if that is not the case, look at the prospective client and evaluate all you have and note the “smell” of something not quite right. Occasionally you will be wrong, but at many other times you can say: “We do not deserve to be your lawyers” and be better off for it.