How to Say “No” to a Case Properly
For any law firm or lawyer, new cases and clients present an exciting opportunity. The excitement of walking to the conference room to meet with a potential client is palpable. You just don’t know what kind of case this new client could bring. Are we going to have to sue the city? Is the insurance company playing fairly? Could opposing counsel be Lawyer X again? New cases are typically surrounded by speculation, excitement and maybe even a dash of hope.
However, for any law firm or lawyer, new cases and clients sometimes present bad or unwanted cases. Unwanted cases are definitely not exciting. In fact, unwanted cases are actually a bit stressful because it can be difficult to tell the clients, “No, thanks.” Moreover, you know how hard new cases and decent clients are to come by.
There is little doubt in my mind that lawyers love to have clients and absolutely hate letting cases go—even if they are bad cases! If you fall into this category, this article is for you.
Probably the most difficult part of letting a client’s case go is simply telling them the practical reality of their situation. Have you ever wondered why this is difficult? Well, if you are anything like I am, it is difficult because the client is likely a decent person, from a good family, and likely really needs legal help from a lawyer just like you.
Regardless of how good a person they are or how many times they have proved that they are a pleasure to work with, if a case has no merits, the decision should be clear. No merits = no case. And where there is no case, you are obligated to tell your client that it is your legal opinion that their legal case has some problems. Tell the truth in plain and simple terms. If the client is not satisfied with your legal opinion, advise them to seek a second opinion.
In the event that you are dealing with a client whose case simply does not make sense to pursue, explaining the financial consequences of proceeding with the case. In simple terms, take the time to educate the client by laying out the truth of the matter. If this is a matter of principle and they still wish to proceed in the face of the financial ruin, then so be it.
So What Can You Do About It
So if you are wondering what you can do about having to deliver bad news to your clients, the answer can be fairly simple:
- Take solace in the fact that you aren’t an oncologist.
- Take solace in the fact that no one is going to jail—ignore this if you practice criminal law.
- Take a moment to reflect on why you were hired in the first place. I am sure you will discover that a significant part of the client’s hiring decision is that they trust you to tell them the truth and have engaged your services because of your forthrightness.
- Remember that since your clients trust you and trust is hard to earn back, you may actually need to tell them the truth of their situation before they find out from someone else.
- Advise them to seek a second opinion if they have any doubt about your legal opinion.
- Remind the client that while their claim may not make financial sense to pursue, they can file in small claims court and try to handle their claim themselves. Naturally, you should offer some guidance.
- Provide the client with legal aid’s contact information if it meets their requirements for pro bono representation.
- Remind your clients that pro se representation is an option if their claim isn’t suited for small claims.
- Be truthful and open about their case and the situation.
Regardless of whether you follow this advice or decide to head in the opposite direction, please be sure to document your conversation for the client and for your records. If you end or decline representation, best practices dictate that you send a follow-up letter memorializing what you have told the client and your case suggestions.
The last thing that your blooming practice needs is a client who decided that you weren’t as helpful or trustworthy as you believed and contacts the State Bar on your behalf. In the interest of ensuring that you send a non-engagement or disengagement letter, I have taken the liberty of linking to a template of each for you – Non-engagement Letter and Disengagement Letter. Never terminate or decline representation without the corresponding letter being drafted and sent to protect you and your law firm.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success. Anyone who has ever met Jared will tell you h