Boutique Law Firms, In-House Counsel, Small Law Firms

Episode 2: Just Saying No To Potential Clients

Christina Gagnier

Ed. note: Please welcome Christina Gagnier, who will be covering small law firm practice. You can read her full bio at the end of this post.

When you are starting out, or even eight years in to running your own firm, you want clients. You need people coming through the door, physically or virtually, who are willing to pay for your legal services.

As much as you want to take all of the clients that you can get, you have to look out for the red flags — those potential clients who are going to be more trouble than they are worth or may lead you down a rabbit hole. Two stories highlight different types of potential client red flags…

The Awkward Contract Review Scenario

The first instance concerned a potential client who needed a contract reviewed. A seemingly innocuous transactional legal work request at first, we engaged in a consult. (By the way, the consult is really a litmus test to see if you should be working with a client. Asking the right questions is imperative.) The consult ended as they normally do, with our firm sending a follow up email to the prospective client detailing what we discussed and a retainer agreement for our firm’s services.

The response was a refusal to sign a retainer agreement, an offer to pay for one hour to review the contract on the spot and, finally, that the client wanted to come to the office to watch me review the contract.

Let’s take a Zach Morris Time Out to discuss this.

Red Flag #1: Refusal to sign the retainer agreement everyone else does.

Regardless of what service you provide, you should always have an agreement detailing what you are going to offer and what you are getting in exchange. As lawyers, these agreements are decidedly much lengthier, but it would be imprudent and ironic for a professional who encourages people to “get it down on paper” at every turn to decline to use their own agreement with their own clients.

Red Flag #2: Constricting the engagement in such a manner that could cause conflict or an uncomfortable situation.

We then arrive at the “watching me review a contract” component of the request. We do have an HDTV in a our conference room hooked up to my iTunes, Netflix, and HuluPlus accounts, so I guess the client could have kept himself entertained. Still, this is the biggest red flag. Being a lawyer requires me to exercise caution and due diligence. I may need to look up something online regarding the contract. The contract could contain terms I have never seen before or terms that are not standard for that sort of transaction. The externalities of reviewing a contract sight unseen while the client waits creates many potential issues.

I also started coming up with other scenarios. Would we have a staring contest? Would the client be sitting over my shoulder watching me review the contract? Would we Rochambeau for who got to sit where?

The offer to pay on the spot is seemingly excellent. It is the bane of any small firm’s existence to manage unpaid billings at a small practice. The idea that cash or a check (or Square, Ribbon, or PayPal payment) would be rendered immediately makes things so much easier for a firm’s bottom line. We will take this as a win in the potential client request category with the caveat that it may depend on what they want to pay you on the spot for.

Accepting this gig would have been awkward and far out of the course of procedure through which we work with all of our other clients. The verdict was that this potential client was a no go.

When Your Gut Just Says “No”

At other times, the consult takes such a twist that while entertaining, it is clear that this client is not for you. Several years ago, I was referred a client with very few details except for that it was an intellectual property matter. Fair enough, it is a major part of what our firm does.

As the consult commenced, I started getting a backstory about 80’s video games, ex-lovers, and a stolen concept. As an intellectual property lawyer, I enjoy when the case background I get is interesting.  After a lengthy regaling of facts, the bottom line was that the client wholeheartedly believed that someone had stolen his character ideas that ended up in a major book and movie franchise involving sparkling mythical beings.

Red Flag: Client who regales a grandiose tale involving a major publishing and film franchise.

At this juncture, both my legal “spidey senses” (as my partner puts it) and my general common sense feeling of “this is a bad idea” came into play. While I empathize with all of the people I talk to about their potential legal issues — since most of them are coming from a genuine place — there are times where saying no is more than prudent (as a side note, this is not the only time this has happened).

At some point, despite the allure of bringing in more paying clients, you have to do a gut check to see if working with a client is right for you and your firm. Perhaps you may not be able to know that ahead of time (see my last column), but the ability to vet whom you should be working with is imperative.

Christina Gagnier leads the Intellectual Property, Internet & Technology practice at Gagnier Margossian LLP, with a specialization in social media, copyright and information privacy. She is also at the helm of REALPOLITECH, a digital public relations consultancy that provides a broad range of services, including crisis communications. She serves on the Board of Directors of Without My Consent, combating issues like revenge porn. If you ever need to find her, start with Twitter at @gagnier or email her at

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