WMU-Cooley Professor Gary Bauer, a recent ABA Solo and Small Firm Trainer award winner, teaches Estate Planning to third-year law students and a directed study class he created called Solo By Design. His blog, sololawyerbydesign.com, provides law students, recent solo practioners, and seasoned professionals who wish to go solo, with information and resources to be successful in the legal business. This blog post was first published on July 20, 2016.
And those were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. – Nietzsche
Sometimes when you are faced with making a decision about whether to take on a client, you need to be careful to listen to the “music.” It takes a lot of experience to become adept at choosing clients who will be good clients and those who will dispute your fees or fail to listen to good legal advice and tell you how to practice law.
A True Story: Each Fall, I participate in an auto auction in which over 2,000 antique and classic cars were sent through the auction. It was one of those national auctions that are televised. And some of the cars that go through the auction are incredible. It can be a great way to buy a car, but, “buyer beware!” I would always employ a professional to help guide me in buying one of these vehicles.
About 20 cars at a time are moved to a staging area in anticipation of moving them into an arena and onto a turntable where they are auctioned off. I was one of the drivers who would upon command, start my chosen vehicle. After testing the brakes, I would drive it into one of the two elevated turntables to be auctioned off. So it was critical that I could stop the car lest it become embedded in the floor below. Once on the turntable, we were instructed to turn the engine off and wait as the auctioneer plied his powers of persuasion to foster a contest between two speculators turned buyers.
Being new to this driving experience, I found it to be quite a challenge as each of the cars or trucks had quite different characteristics. Some were “sticks,” some were “automatics.” Some were quite new, and exotic with “paddle shifters.” It was critical to find neutral and reverse to navigate safely to the stage, through a sizable crowd, and park each car after the gavel struck wood. After the cars took their turn on the turntable, we were instructed to wait as “pushers” would approach the vehicle from the rear and push it off stage down a ramp where we waited for a golf cart to lead us to the parking area.
As I sat in each vehicle in the staging area, potential buyers and kibitzers would come by and inspect the vehicles. Some would ask me to start them up to hear them run. “How many turns on the odometer?” Others would take magnets and flashlights checking for “bondo” (fiberglass filling rusted areas) or ripples in the metal, indicating inferior or amateur restoration techniques.
I sat in a late model Porsche 911 convertible, which as a novice, I had picked as as one of the more exotic and desirable cars. Soon a potential purchaser walked up to the car and checked it out. After some time, I asked him what he thought of the car. He said, “this is a 20-footer!”
I thought he was referring to the length of the car. But, he corrected me. “No,” he said. “I was referring to the fact that at 20 feet you might be fooled to think this was a nice vehicle.” However, upon closer inspection he saw that the seats and door panels had been recovered with vinyl covers instead of the original expensive real leather. It was not up to the standards that one would expect for a professional restoration. In addition, the convertible top cover was not in accordance with new specs and was a cheap replacement. As he examined the sheet metal, he pointed to flaws and areas where his magnet would not adhere which seemed to indicate “bondo” under the paint instead of metal.
He explained that most of the seasoned professionals had been “burned” more than once and had to learn quickly how to avoid costly mistakes or wouldn’t survive in the business. If I were to buy a car at auction, I would employ a professional to avoid a “20 Footer” or pay the “20 Footer” value. So too, in practice, be careful of the “20 Footer” client.
I can try to describe them. They just fired their last attorney. They try to control the process and your strategy. They question your fees and demand you drop everything and treat their matter as if it is the most important case in your caseload. They cause you to spend your time distracted from your good clients to serve their unreasonable demands.
Many of them will come into your office with “bondo” underneath. It won’t be detectable to the new practitioner. But the seasoned attorney will pick up on subtle cues that the new lawyer will never notice.
Try to find a mentor and do a “ride along” as often as you can. When you are just starting out, your time may be well spent observing a professional in action. Many solo practitioners tell me that learning to distinguish the good clients from the bad clients is one of the hardest lessons they ever learned. Observe them and ask them how they distinguish the good from the bad clients. What techniques do they use to identify who they decline to represent verses those they retain.
They say 20 percent of your clients will create 80 percent of your greatest headaches. Learn to turn them away in the first instance. And, if you find yourself entangled with someone who proves to be a “20 Footer,”get rid of them, consistent with the rules of professional responsibility, as they cost you time, money and emotional capital that is better spent on “authentic and quality” clients.