How do you, the new or new-ish, family law attorney, evaluate new clients?
Every family law attorney will come across potential new clients who are mentally or emotionally unwell. It is not necessary to turn away all of these new clients. Some will be wonderful people and good clients. I have represented many clients with mental health and addiction issues, and some of their problems have been very severe. That alone is not a reason to turn away someone who needs your help, protection, and advocacy. However, some people, whether or not you would call them mentally or emotionally disordered, have been deceitful, dishonest and lacking in consideration for the rights of others.
It is necessary to have some criteria to evaluate potential new clients. You do not want to take a new client who may be disordered to the point of presenting risk of harm to you, your business, or your reputation.
I have learned over many years of practice to look out for the following warning signs during the initial consultation.
1. Some potential clients have an agenda to persuade you of their righteousness. During most of the consultation they are doing the talking. The content of their talking is to have you, the lawyer, buy into their scenario that whatever the problem is in their marriage or parenting relationship, it is someone else’s fault. If you press them with probing questions, they become defensive in their answers and their justifications will focus on the blame due other people. They will be angry if you point out that the facts do not add up to their conclusion, or that the law does not support their claim or desired result. You will know something is up when you feel you must agree with their blaming to mollify them. Be wary if you find yourself having an emotional reaction of disliking the other spouse or parent, whom you have never met. Creating a visceral dislike or even hatred in you, the objective professional, is likely the result of exposure to a very manipulative person.
2. Some potential clients work very hard at evoking pity from you. It is a warning to send them on their way when the pitiable scenarios they present are not of natural disasters or financial chaos befalling them without warning. The troubling ones are those presenting situations resulting from relationships in which they are an active partner but for which they take no responsibility. It should be a warning to you when your little voice is saying that the words are there, but the timbre, eyes, and body language are not consistent with the emotional content of the words. There is something hungry in their eyes as they search yours for signs of pity. You do not see sadness in them, but something inappropriate to the situation, like anger that you are not expressing pity, or satisfaction that they have achieved getting your sympathy. You are being tested. It is not for your ability or professionalism, but for your gullibility.
3. When a potential client has already had two or more other attorneys before you, do not take their case. The only exception is…well there is no exception. Okay, the exception is if the prior attorneys died unexpectedly. This p/c is trouble, pure and simple.
4. The new client who makes you uncomfortable and feeling like you need to wash your hands when they leave is a client to avoid. This is the person who readily and easily confesses numerous lapses in truth and ethical behavior. A person who has little regard for these character traits will treat you no better. Showing some remorse for such behaviors doesn’t really help if you get the sense this wasn’t desperate measures far outside their usual moral code. A habitual liar who feels guilty about lying is still going to be a risk you don’t need to take.
5. Don’t accept new clients who try to pit you against your own staff. This is the person who sits down to the initial conference with you and complains of mistreatment or some slight from any member of your office staff. Your staff has your back and you have theirs. Which is the more likely miscreant? The person you hired and see every day, or the stranger? This person will balk at having any member of your staff do anything on their case. Their expectations will turn inevitably to the unrealistic. Even if you do not suffer the consequences, your staff will.
I have felt very honored to have represented and advocated for my clients over a long career. A merciful few are exceptions and I have tried to learn from my miscalculation of their character. It is quite likely that someone in a contested family law case has a mental, emotional or substance abuse disorder. Hone your perceptive skills to steer clear of those that may harm you or cause you undue stress.