Client Selection – The Single Most Important Way to Increase Profits, Reduce Stress and Better Serve Your Clients
By Lonny L. Balbi, Q.C.
Balbi & Company Legal Centre, Calgary, Alberta
The Usual Case
A new client walks through your door wanting your help. You probably know the answer
to the problem before the client even finishes the story. You discuss strategy, legal fees and a retainer. The client mentions that their former lawyer was just too slow and that this matter needs to get to trial quickly. You start working.
The case proceeds in the usual course, but small problems start cropping up as you go. Sure, the client paid the initial retainer, but it was not kept up as requested. The client becomes more demanding and starts hounding your staff with endless telephone calls, asking why everything is taking so long. You are now so far into the file that it is very difficult to say no to this client because they really need you. Besides, your relationship is good enough that you know you will be getting paid later.
Things turn sour. You are not happy working with this client and the client decides to fire you. Of course, your bill does not get paid. You wait for that next client to come through the door.
Why We Take Bad Clients
When a person asks a lawyer for help, we often feel grateful to be asked for our opinion in an area in which we have a certain expertise. Our ego is being stroked and it feels good. Furthermore, we need the work and just about any referral source or client type that walks through the door has the potential to keep us and our staff employed. So we take on clients who we intuitively know are less desirable to us in the long run, and are just a potential source of revenue.
When I first started practicing law in the early 80s, I looked for all sorts of ways to get new clients. One of the easiest sources of work was to be on the Legal Aid roster. Clients who qualified for Legal Aid were referred to me and I was able to do the work for these clients, gain a lot of experience and get paid (albeit at a significantly reduced rate) which all seemed to solve my problem on how to get new clients. It soon became apparent, however, that these were not the most ideal clients.
A wise mentor explained to me the error in my ways. Although Legal Aid has its place and provides a valuable service, selecting good quality clients is the best way to increase income. He was right, of course, and I soon learned that focusing in on good quality clients made my life a lot better. Now, I focus on pro bono cases I choose to take on.
A New Way of Thinking About Client Selection
Client selection is the single most important way your firm can increase profits, reduce stress and better serve its clients. Fundamentally, however, it’s an aspect of lawyering that many of us overlook.
It should be a goal of yours to identify problem clients as early as possible, and then avoid taking them on. Just as important, you should focus your efforts on identifying good clients and bringing them into your practice. As much as a problem client is a source of malaise, a good client is a pleasure to work with. In this way, you and your staff will be happier, and the clients you serve will definitely be happier.
If you think back to all the clients with whom you enjoyed working with in the past, you can almost certainly identify certain common characteristics or criteria. Generally, these include co-operation, the value of the case, the openness to settlement, or the availability of income or assets and a willingness to pay your bill.
With some thought and using past experience, you can develop specific client selection criteria in your practice area. Identify these criteria and apply them to new and prospective clients coming into your practice, to decide which cases to take on. You should choose your clients—not the other way around.
Rating Clients: The ABCD Model
One method of ranking your clients is to rate them, as a teacher would a student’s assignment.
In this model, “A” clients would be the best: they pay their accounts on time, they appreciate the work you do for them and they send you excellent work and referrals. You, in turn, are always available to these clients because they are just that good that you really enjoy working with them.
“B” clients would be considered very good but have some minor flaws in a few areas. Maybe they had a previous lawyer with whom they parted ways, amicably or otherwise. Or perhaps they show a medium level of crisis. These are still good clients and well worth taking in.
“C” clients are less desirable. They may show some uncooperativeness, have a lower income or asset level, or show unreasonable expectations. This type of client often comprises the majority of many small-firm practices.
Finally, “D” clients are the nightmare clients you want to avoid at all costs. They complain about your service, the bill, the other lawyer and the other party. They require a disproportionately high amount of attention given their case and need to be terminated from your practice.
Client Selection Criteria
Of course, the criteria by which a lawyer will judge a client’s suitability varies from practice area to practice area and between individuals. But inasmuch as there is no firm set of guidelines for assessing client suitability, there are at least a few more obvious items that may apply universally:
Co-operation and credibility
If a client comes across as being co-operative and credible, consider them a high-ranking client. Listen for clues to determine whether they are telling the truth or indeed the whole story and whether or not they are credible. Trust and respect are fundamental parts of the lawyer-client relationship.
Value of case
Larger-value cases often yield higher profit margins than do smaller-value ones. Try to assess a specific dollar value for each case and whether or not the effort put into the case is worth the return.
Clients with a higher income level can afford your counsel. Those with medium, low or no income often simply cannot afford your representation.
Availability of or access to assets
I once represented a client in a family law matter who, in every respect, was an “A” client except for his income level. He was in a long-term marriage with two children. The wife and her lawyer seemed to be bent on an ugly battle in every aspect of the case.
Although the client’s income was limited, he had reasonably substantial assets in the form of matrimonial property to help pay my fees. In the end, he proved to be a first-rate “A” client even though my initial impression was that he likely could not afford me and he might have been a less desirable “C” client.
Some clients may not have a high level of income, but will have assets, or relatives or friends that can act as a source of cash.
This is often one of the most significant aspects in determining the ranking of a client or the client’s case. Let’s face it, some lawyers are a pleasure to work with while others are not. A client’s opposing counsel can often make the difference between a client ranked at an “A” or “B” level and one ranked lower on the scale.
A client who comes across as being very appreciative of the effort you put into their case is often in the “A” or “B” category. Clients who do not heed the lawyer’s advice or openly express a strong dislike for lawyers should generally be avoided.
Some clients are higher maintenance than others and may require a good deal of handholding during the time you are working on their case. In contrast, a client who takes responsibility and contacts you when appropriate should be regarded as an asset.
A good rule of thumb is that if you are not the first lawyer on the file, multiply your retainer by the number of prior lawyers on the file (i.e. if you are the second lawyer, multiply your retainer by 2).
If the client has had several lawyers, look out! This is usually a bad sign and you may have to dig a little deeper to determine the reasons for their many switches.
A client with high intellect usually understands the processes required in resolving a case and they tend to be a pleasure to work with. Some clients simply do not grasp concepts, or have impractical expectations and should be avoided.
Open to settlement/follow advice
A genuine desire to resolve matters and a willingness to listen and take your advice is a sign of a good client. On the other hand, the client who is bent on revenge, or demands a trial is likely a “C” or “D” client.
Depending on the circumstances, clients with a low level of crisis are more attractive than those who are in a constant state of emergency.
Word of mouth referrals from other A and B clients or referral sources are usually a good sign of a good client. As you obtain more A and B clients, you will continue to get more of these sorts of referral sources. On the other hand, clients who come from the Yellow Pages or lawyer referral services should be treated with a little more caution.
These are some general criteria to help you select the clients that best suit you and your firm. More specific practice areas will include other criteria for assessing client suitability. In family law, for example, it’s worth taking into account the level of animosity that exists between spouses as well as a desire and ability to pay child support and more generally the parents’ attitude toward their children.
In a personal injury practice, additional criteria may include insurance coverage, the value of damage or wage loss claim and the extent to which the client was at fault in the incident.
Putting It To Use
Once you have established the appropriate selection criteria for your practice, you should then develop a system for putting these criteria to use in your practice. Begin by creating a written evaluation—a checklist, or a matrix, perhaps—that allows you to measure the pros and cons of each client.
This system should be implemented during the very first point of contact with the client—usually over the telephone. Have your legal assistant or paralegal complete a cursory evaluation of the individual as they are talking to him or her. This could include asking the potential client for basic information and details of the case, while simultaneously ranking the client based on each of the client selection criteria.
If your staff determines that the client is inappropriate for your practice (i.e. a “C” or a “D” client), then the client should be appropriately referred to other lawyers, Legal Aid or some other lawyer referral service. If the client is a potential “A” or “B” client, arrangements should be made for an initial interview where you will determine for yourself if this is truly a client worth keeping.
I have implemented a client selection criteria system in my office and since doing so, there has been a definite and measurable increase in “A” and “B” level clients.
Legal assistants screen clients immediately and helpfully redirect inappropriate clients to other referral sources. Those potential clients that seem to be in the “A” or “B” category are interviewed in enough detail to provide the legal assistant and, subsequently, the lawyer, with enough information to assess the quality of the client.
Once the client comes into the office and meets with me or one of my colleagues, the final decision on the level of the client is made by the lawyer. If the lawyer decides to accept the client, a retainer arrangement is made. If the lawyer decides not to accept the client, the client simply pays for the consultation and is helped to find appropriate legal representation.
I recommend that your staff be the initial point of assessment for every client. Staff will often be more objective about a client than a lawyer. If you were to conduct the process on your own, your ego might come into play, and you could take on a client despite strong indicators that he or she is less than desirable. Avoid falling into the trap of letting everyone in the door simply because they want you.
Many of the ideas in this article were taken from a course I took in 2003 entitled The Practice Builder. It was offered by an American company called Atticus, which is headed by the very well respected and forward-thinking Mark Powers.
For more information on programs available through Atticus, visit http://www.atticusonline.com.
Lonny L. Balbi, Q.C., practices at Balbi & Company Legal Centre in Calgary and is Chair of the CBA’s National Family Law Section. His previous article, “Guerilla Tactics on Getting Paid”, appears in PracticeLink's "Money & Finances” section.
Neither the author nor the CBA should be construed as endorsing any product or website listed in this article. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CBA.|
In this document, any reference to "jurist" or "lawyer" includes, where appropriate, "Québec notary".