April 2005Volume 33Number 6PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Red flags

This past fall, I attended my 30th law school reunion. I hadn't planned to attend but my 10 closest friends from law school were all returning. With these "crazy" friends, I played sports, studied and socialized until all hours. After graduation all of us went our separate ways and except for occasional holiday cards, I haven't seen my friends in 30 years.

Some of my friends were in large firms, others in solo and small firms. They were trial lawyers, and those that specialized in transactional accounts. However, as we discussed the past 30 years over a refreshing beverage, we realized that we had so many experiences in common. The biggest commonality we had were our experiences with our clients. We all had great clients and cases in the past, but we also had clients whose cases we wished we had never agreed to handle.

After that marvelous weekend I made a list of clients that if you see them coming, you better "run for the hills." Here are my "red flag clients":

1. Go With Gut: If your reaction to the case and/or the persons is unfavorable, then pass on the case.

2. Prior Legal Representation: If the potential client has been represented by other attorneys on the same case, question why it didn't work out with the former attorney. Now there may be reasons that would confirm your reasons for taking the case, but before you pick up someone else's problems, investigate the case with the prior attorney and/or court file.

3. Attitudes Towards Other Professionals: If the potential client has no respect for professionals such as doctors, accountants, or other attorneys, he or she probably has little respect for you.

4. Attitude Toward the Case: If a potential client wants to sue on the basis of "principle," then you probably know that you will not be paid on the basis of "principle."

5. Potential Client's Belief of the Skill, Expertise, and Time Needed to Pursue Their Case: If the potential client has formed an opinion that his case will require little or no time to acquire the results he desires, then the client will probably attempt to control you and your fee.

6. Beware of Friends, Friends of Relatives, or Knows Someone Who Went to High School With You: Always ask yourself, would you have accepted the case if the person was just a stranger?

7. Fee Disputes: If you are having difficulty coming to terms on a fee agreement at the initial conference, refuse the case.

8. Emergency Matters: Beware of clients that only appear with an "immediate emergency" or the statute of limitations that is about to run.

9. Consider Their Ability to Pay: If the potential client does not appear to have the ability to pay your fee, then decide either to handle the matter as a pro bono matter or avoid the case.

You may have your own list of red flag clients that you may add to my list. One more admonition: even after 30 years of practice, I still find myself taking a client here or there that I wish I had avoided. So don't beat yourself up too much. Just have fun with it. It will definitely be a great story at some future reunion party.


About the Author: Bernard Wysocki is an attorney at Wysocki, Smith & Curtis located in Waukegan, Illinois. He is a past Chair of the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section. He is the author of numerous articles in various ISBA publications and has spoken at numerous ISBA programs.

About the author: Walter C. Kilgus is a partner in the Morrison, Illinois law firm Nelson, Kilgus, Richey & Huffman. He is a graduate of Carthege College and the University of Illinois College of Law. He is engaged in the general practice of law.

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