When you open a solo or small law practice, making money may be your biggest concern, and you may feel like you have to accept every job that comes in the door. I’ve been to networking events where other law firm owners say that’s what they did until they had enough money in the bank, and enough opportunities for business to be more selective in the cases they accepted. But I tend toward a different view.
When I Hear Stories Like This, I Cringe
I think it’s wrong to take any case you can get. First, because you’re setting yourself up to work on cases where you could easily find yourself practicing outside your scope of competence. Second, you might do a bad job if you don’t care enough about the case to give it the attention it needs.
But I also think it’s okay to decline work that’s within your scope of practice if the offer is coming from a potential client that could cause more problems for you than they’re worth. When I meet someone new, I trust the vibe I feel from that person. If my gut says I shouldn’t take the person on as a client, I won’t do it. My gut instinct is sometimes inaccurate, but it has never been wrong.
I run a mostly transactional practice and use flat-fee billing. All of my clients are required to pay in full before I will do any work for them. If clients ask me to do several things for them, I’ll let them know what the cost for each project will be. They can pay for each piece when they want it done, or when they can afford to hire me to do it. When I first opened my firm, I turned down one of my earliest opportunities for work. Someone approached me about reviewing a short contract—a job I could do for under $500. When I told him about my payment policy, he responded that he only wanted to pay one-third in advance because he was afraid I’d take the money and run. I gave him the number to a local lawyer referral service.
The best piece of advice I’ve received about accepting clients was from fellow Arizona attorney Jane Ross. She said, “You never regret the client you didn’t take.” This has been true in my professional life. I didn’t change careers to become a lawyer to be miserable or to set myself up for a bar complaint. I have never regretted the times I referred potential work to other lawyers, either because it was a case that was out of my scope of practice or because it was a personality mismatch with the client.
Ruth Carter is a lawyer, writer and speaker. She is Of Counsel with Venjuris, focusing her practice on intellectual property, social media, First Amendment and flash mob law. Named an ABA Journal 2012 Legal Rebel, Ruth is author of the ABA book “The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers,” as well as “Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans.” In “Nothing But the Ruth,” she writes about the lessons she’s learning while building her practice. She blogs at UndeniableRuth.com. Follow her on Twitter @rbcarter.