In my work with attorneys on how to grow their practices, I often start with the question: who are your the ideal clients? As tempting as the answer may be, it is rarely as simple as: “the ones who pay their bills”. Of course, the “right” clients should have a need that aligns with your area of focus – and, yes, they also must have the ability to pay you (assuming you are charging hourly or on a flat fee basis).
Picking the right clients requires deeper inquiry. The attorneys I coach find that this additional investment is well worth the time it takes. Here are 6 things to think about as you consider accepting your next client, or a new matter from an existing client.
1. Does it Fit? Does the nature, size and scope of the legal problem fit within my particular area of expertise and focus? Do I have the time and resources necessary to attend to the matter and all of my other matters and the business of my practice? Be mindful of accepting cases which stretch your expertise and resources beyond your ability to stay on top of them.
2. What does the client expect? The ideal client is willing to take your advice and be open to adjusting their expectations accordingly. Factors include (but are not limited to):
- Expected outcome?
- Time to achieve expected outcome?
- Legal fees – both amount and timing of payment
- Expenses and costs – don’t assume that clients understand the difference between Fees and Expenses
- Your availability? Does the client expect you to personally be on-call 24×7? Do they understand how you’ll work with staff?
- Work they have to do? Does the client understand how they will have to participate in the case? Are they prepared to do it.
3. What is the client’s experience with other attorneys? You want to know how this client has worked with attorneys before – what has worked and what has not. Ask open ended questions to get the client talking about prior experiences and how those relationships ended and why. Also ask these questions about clients you know before taking on additional matters. Good starter questions include:
- Have you been involved in a legal case before?
- Tell me about the case and how it worked out?
- What did you like best about the lawyer(s) you worked with?
- What drove you crazy about the legal process?
- What do I need to know about working with you?
Tip: You can often infer someone’s feeling about attorneys by checking their attitudes towards other professionals such as doctors, accountants and bankers.
4. How does the client approach problems? A legal matter is a very stressful time for clients. This includes people who manage legal problems for companies and organizations, especially non-lawyer executives and stakeholders. You need to understand how that client reacts to stress and solves problems. Questions to ask yourself include:
- Does the client’s action (or inaction) create or exacerbate problems (e.g., procrastination)?
- How does the client react to news that he/she doesn’t like to hear? Is this someone who shoots the messenger?
- Is the client likely to over-react to adverse situations?
- Is the client showing the ability to listen, follow your advice and participate appropriately in the matter?
5. Is the client financially stable and honest? Your client has to have the financial staying power to see the matter through its conclusion. You also need to have an honest and open relationship with your client – especially if you are representing them in transactional matters where trust and following through on commitments are essential parts of the deal.
6. Is it Profitable? If you pass all the other tests, you still need to have confidence that the compensation you will collect will exceed your expenses. This is even true if your practice is based on contingency fees. On balance, you need to have a level of confidence that you will win, and can collect sufficient fees to turn a profit. Remember, stellar client selection is the key to avoiding problems and maximizing both your profit and your satisfaction. It’s a core practice management skill and one you can begin strengthening today.