The best attorney in the world can still end up with an attorney malpractice claim by taking the wrong client or case.
Every firm needs to have a client intake procedure that they use for every new client and case. It is best to have a written plan that everyone in the firm follows. Once the intake procedure is in place the law firm needs to stick with it. Even though it is the hardest word to tell a prospective client, the attorney sometimes needs to say “No”. So when should an attorney say “No”:
1. The case is outside of the attorney’s expertise. Many lawyers pride themselves with being able to handle anything. But taking a case that the attorney has no background in will involve more costs and more time doing research. This leaves the firm open to making mistakes in parts of the law they are not familiar with. In the end it makes the firm less profitable. It is best when a law firm sticks to their knitting.
2. The client that comes into the firm with a last minute case that is up against a statute of limitations filing deadline can open the firm up to a malpractice claim. If the attorney does not have time to thoroughly research the matter or is not given key information that last minute client matter can turn into an attorney malpractice claim where the client now has time to file against the attorney.
3. The client has already had 2 other law firms to represent them on this matter and they are dissatisfied with both. There is no reason to believe that you will fare any better than the 2 previous attorneys. Accepting this case will put you in line to be the 3rd or 4th law firm that the client is dissatisfied with representation. The more the merrier when the dissatisfied client sues every attorney that has touched the case.
4. The client comes in and feels that their case is worth millions of dollars when in reality the case is worth $10,000. Or the client feels that they are defiantly in the “right” and wants to prove a point. If you do take this client, make sure to set the expectations properly and have agreement from the potential client as to the expectations prior to accepting the case.
5. The client that comes in and tells the attorney the law or the procedure that should be used to handle the case. If the potential clients expectations are different then how the matter should be handled, they again need to be set straight prior to accepting the engagement.
6. The client that comes in and wants to use the legal system to punish the other party is one step away from a malpractice claim, a bar complaint, or sanctions for the attorney.
7. The client that has poor attitude toward the legal system may not be happy with any result the attorney may achieve.
8. The client that comes in with the “test” case for the attorney, with the promise of more work in the future. Don’t compromise your intake procedures or principles.
9. The client may have trouble paying you. Yes you can sue for fees, but this is one of the major causes of malpractice claims. Why take a case that you are not going to get paid for?
Know when to say “No”. Make sure that “No” means “No”. Use a disengagement letter clearly states that you did not take the case and are not representing this client. These disengagement letters and documentation have saved more than one attorney from a malpractice claim.
Too often we see attorney malpractice claims being reported with the attorney stating that they should never have taken this client or this client’s case. These are the same law firms that have reported multiple claims and bar complaints with one common thread; client selection. A great attorney with a bad client is a malpractice claim waiting to happen.