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The Art of Saying “No,” in a Solo Legal Practice

Heather Abissi Author : Heather Abissi | March 27, 2024

Coffee and adrenaline typically fuel the first year or so of running a law practice. The fear of financial failure pushes panic-acceptance of almost any case that walks in the door. However, as is the case in most other aspects of life, fear-driven decision making is a mistake. The most devastating storm a new practice can endure is bad reviews or worse, attorney grievances. Most attorneys, new to private practice, believe that because they are good, diligent, attorneys they would never find themselves in such a circumstance. This naiveté can make you a perfect target for an unscrupulous client.

Unfortunately, there are bad people in the world. People who are opportunistic, predatory, and sociopathic, often, unsurprisingly, have legal problems. Their counsel are not immune from victimization. In fact, often, their counsel serves as the perfect victim because they are least expecting to be harmed by someone they are helping.

Clients vet you, make sure you vet clients.

Client intakes should be treated as triage and assessment at a doctor’s office. You identify the problem, take a thorough history, and then you make an assessment if you are able to help the person. There’s a fourth, important assessment that needs to be made – Do you want to be the attorney to help this person. This is where new firms need to be sure and “pump the breaks,” before immediately taking on a case. You need to carefully assess whether there are any red flags.

Like Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Don’t excuse away bad behavior on the part of a potential client. Factors to consider when deciding whether to take someone on include intangibles like: How did they treat you or your staff when making the appointment? Were they on time for their appointment? Did they denigrate prior counsel, or the victim of their crime? Does their story seem plausible/believable? Are any of their legal problems centered on a failure to pay for services? Do they come across as likeable? Do they appear defensive at your questions or feedback? Are you comfortable with the nature of the case and allegations?

Without passing judgment on anyone who comes to your office, these are still factors that weigh on whether you are the correct person to represent this specific client. I often quote the adage, “Everyone is entitled to a legal defense, but they are not entitled to a legal defense by me.” Clients who are disrespectful on the phone to you or your staff, and/or who are late without remorse, are typically people who do not value or respect your time. If they didn’t pay prior counsel, there’s a good chance they won’t pay you – another red flag. There are a bevy of dysfunctional personalities and the entitlement that comes with narcissism and/or sociopathy are simply no fly zone red flags. No R-E-S-P-E-C-T, no representation.

Potential clients who come in bashing a laundry list of prior attorneys, is another major red flag. What do all of those attorneys have in common – that client. If they are bashing them today, they will be willing to bash you tomorrow. You can further vet this issue by asking the names of the attorneys they complain of – do you know them? Have you known them to be fair and competent? If so, you’ve corroborated your red flag.

Everyone makes mistakes, its what we do to own our mistakes and learn from them that matters. If, in the course of making a mistake, we hurt someone, most people express remorse over having hurt someone. If a potential client’s sole regret is getting caught, and expresses no remorse, or worse denigrates the victim, this is a red flag, and likely not a client you want to take on. If they don’t care about who they hurt, that includes you. Most importantly, you need to like and believe your client. Trust is the foundation of the attorney-client relationship, listen to your instincts, if you don’t trust the potential client, they aren’t the client for you.

Red flags can mean big problems.

Red flags can be easy to ignore, until the moment they aren’t. When it’s time for the client to pay invoices beyond their initial retainer is most frequently the time when the attorney-client relationship can devolve and those red flags spell big problems. Suddenly you are vilified and subject to diatribes, they may refuse to pay, and may grieve you if you terminate representation or file suit to be paid.

As with all clients, but especially “red flag,” clients it is vitally important that you keep careful records of your work. Most important among those are client invoices and client fund accounting. While most solo practitioners don’t have need for most of the office management features offered by popular programs, every firm has the need for properly maintaining client funds. Luckily there are low-cost alternatives, Nota, for example, is a digital platform created specifically for attorneys. Nota allows attorneys notate their operating and trust account by client and by each individual transaction, keeping client funds carefully segregated. 

With bank-powered, human-error-proof numbers, attorneys with Nota, have a self-reconciling account, and an easy way to transfer money between accounts and print checks. Beyond that, the Nota team offers concierge services for all attorney-banking needs, including the full suite of financial services offered by M&T bank. By taking advantage of top notch tools and support resources, attorneys can safeguard themselves. 

Saying, “No,” to others, sometimes means saying, “Yes,” to yourself.

Becoming an attorney is not sentencing yourself to martyrdom. The same boundaries that make for healthy personal relationships are the boundaries that help keep client relationships healthy as well. Clients can have legal issues at all times day and night, but it is up to you, whether you want to take on cases that can mean going to a police station at 2am to sit with a client through an interrogation. There are many many different areas of law. Pick the area of law that resonates with you, your schedule, and your family. 

So many attorneys feel guilty or apologize for setting a boundary with clients – stop that practice today! Never apologize for taking care of yourself. By setting a boundary today, you are in a better head space to help someone else tomorrow. There is nothing wrong with setting business hours and sticking to them.

One way to avoid any conflict with your clients over boundaries, is to let them know your policies in advance, and to include your policy in your retainer. By doing so, the client is told in advance how you work, and signs off on it in writing. Since people forget things, it is also a good policy to make use of away messages. If you have strict business hours, have an away message for emails as well as voicemail that says, “You have reached our office after business hours. Messages will be reviewed in the order they are received when business resumes at 9am.” By setting an automatic response clearly stating your office’s boundaries, no one will be surprised when they do not receive an immediate response.

I have had many attorneys push back, worried that such boundaries will hinder business. In my experience, the only people off-put by a business maintaining boundaries are people who don’t respect boundaries in general, and that makes them a red flag client anyway. Ask yourself, do you get angry that every restaurant isn’t open 24 hours? Do you stop seeing your doctor because his office isn’t open 24 hours? Will you fire your accountant because he doesn’t respond to you 24 hours a day? No, of course not. Attorneys need personal time too. We are humans. We need rest. We need downtime. We need time to run errands, clean up the house, and do laundry. Set your boundaries, and police those boundaries. 

Saying, “No,” only becomes difficult when you ascribe emotional baggage to it – the worry over how someone will react, or what they will think, or whether the client will fire you. There is no place for emotional decision making in the law. Make informed, logic-based decisions, consistent with both the facts and your own personal bandwidth. You can’t help anyone if you implode. The art of saying, “No,” is unapologetically saying it.

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