Small Law Firms

Size Matters: When Bad Clients Jump Out of a Box

This weekend I was able to catch up on my favorite reality television show, Real Housewives of Atlanta. I assure you that I watch the show only because of its profile of small-firm lawyer, Phaedra Parks. The November 27, 2011 episode entitled “Jewels Be Dangled,” taught us a very important lesson for small-firm practitioners.

Phaedra brought Kandi a special present for her 35th birthday. All wrapped up in a giant box with a bow, Phaedra presented her friend with a special performance by her client, Ridiculous. For those of you unfamiliar with the Infamous Ridiculous, he is a very well-endowed stripper who will shake his business in the face of audience members and then, as an encore, his own. The performance upset at least a few party guests and, in typical Housewives fashion, drama ensued.

While the naive observer may think that Phaedra brought Ridiculous to the party because the show is, well, ridiculous, the truth is Ms. Parks was warning small-firm lawyers about an issue they must confront in running their practice….

Beware the bad client (although it does seem as if Phaedra is quite keen on Ridiculous). Not running my own small firm, I can only conjecture that bad clients may not reveal themselves in a way as obvious as Ridiculous. So how do you spot the right (and wrong client), short of him jumping out of a box?

According to an article on David V. Lorenzo’s blog, Rainmaker Lawyer, there are five questions to ask yourself when selecting a client.

1. Will the representation give you an opportunity to do your best work?

If working for the client does not afford you the opportunity to utilize your skills, then it is not a good fit. Tell the client to get back in his box.

2. Can you legally, morally, and ethically work with this client without reservation?

As Lorenzo puts it, “if you can’t stand your client, he shouldn’t be your client.” Put differently, if you view your client the same way Mama Joyce viewed Ridiculous, do not represent that client.

3. Can your client pay for your services?

Lorenzo draws a line in the sand on this point: “You are not a charity. Your law firm is a business. Don’t negotiate fees. Give 100% effort and provide your client with 100% of your talent, skills, knowledge and experience. They should pay 100% of your fee. If your client can’t afford it, they should not be your client.” Other small-firm attorneys have told me that for the right client, they are willing to negotiate their fees. Nevertheless, if there is no way to make the representation financially feasible, keep that client in the box.

4. Will the client assist you in performing your services?

To achieve positive results for your client, you need his cooperation. If he won’t cooperate, he is not the right dance partner.

5. Can the representation lead to additional matters or new clients?

While this does not necessarily impact whether or not to take on a client, it is something to consider and, where appropriate, “you should probe about the prospective client’s ability” to do so. After all, I would be shocked if Ridiculous were not a repeat customer (for whatever his legal needs may be, including, without limitation, personal injury).

For small-firm attorneys, each representation matters. It is important to pick the right clients. Doing so, however, is not easy. So, keep these suggestions in mind and please let me know if you have any other tips. And a good rule of thumb when selecting clients: if a man jumps out of a box and asks for legal representation, just say no.


When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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