Client Screening for Fewer Headaches

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By: Stuart J. Reich, Esq.

You can’t assemble two immigration attorneys for any length of time before conversation turns to difficult, unresponsive, abusive, or simply non-paying clients. It’s a common trope in our profession, and a source of no small measure of professional dissatisfaction.

Initial screening before representation is essential to weeding out the potential clients who can harm your practice…or your sanity. There will always be issues in any relationship, business or personal, and even good initial screening can’t prevent every problem down the road. However, it can prevent a good number of them.

Here then are a few thoughts on ways to sort the good from bad potential clients – and on a few of the people you might meet along the way.

1. Consultation fees

There are many, many good arguments for charging for initial consultations: the value of the attorney’s time, the theory that clients won’t ultimately value the attorney’s time and efforts unless the attorney places a value on that time from the start, and plenty of others outside the scope of this post.

For our purposes, the best argument for charging a consultation fee is to screen for clients who can’t make their peace with the notion that they will actually need to pay for legal work. If a potential client balks at a relatively nominal consultation fee, they are unlikely to have the means or perhaps the willingness to pay the legal fees for a future matter.

2. Vetting potential clients from the initial call or e-mail contact

When scheduling an initial consultation, be sure you – or the administrative assistant/paralegal/etc. handling the call – think to ask for a brief statement about the nature of the client’s situation.

The potential client may be asking about a type of matter you simply don’t handle. At this point, a referral can be made from a list of colleagues handling various types of work (it’s always a good idea to keep such a list close at hand for the person dealing with these first inquiries). Neither your own time or the potential client’s is wasted, the potential client feels well-served by your office, and you’ve built up good will with colleagues for mutual referrals down the road.

Where the potential client is asking about a type of matter you would normally handle, you go in to a consultation knowing that the potential is there for a solid partnership. In addition, the potential client’s initial description may make you aware by of any special circumstances requiring a brush-up on certain areas of law in advance of the consultation. The person may be sufficiently aware of the importance of a child’s age to mention it. This may trigger a re-read of relevant CSPA guidance before you meet, allowing you to answer questions with confidence (and make a good impression!)

Beware, though, that you may yet be surprised at the consultation. What the potential client presents as the issue when asked may not turn out to be the actual issue. A potential client may simply say that the case is about their H-1B. In fact, the consultation will be about what their options might be after having been fired from their H-1B position a year ago, having now overstayed their I-94 by eight months. The potential client may state that their questions relate to a marriage-based green card matter, when in fact the issue is the Notice to Appear they just received having never filed a Petition to Remove Conditions with waiver after divorcing the original petitioning spouse.

3. The “jump-the-gun” potential client

Many clients won’t see the need for an initial consultation and analysis. They’re sure they know exactly what they need (they’ve looked it up online, and received advice from someone in a forum who had “exactly the same” case!)

These clients will ask up front for a list of documents needed to file, and – if they actually do plan on hiring a lawyer and not simply using your list to prepare their own case – perhaps a fee quote. They don’t see the need for an attorney to evaluate their case to determine if they have any kind of case at all…or if they do, whether it’s the case they thought they had.

Normally, these individuals can be convinced by a simple explanation of the process: first we discuss your situation, then we give our opinion of your options and the best course of action moving forward, then we quote a fee for that recommendation, and if you decide to move forward we then provide materials to retain us and explain what needs to be done/what documents are required.

For those who can’t be persuaded, leaving things in their court works best. Explain that you can’t quote fees or tell you what’s needed because you don’t have enough information to determine what, if any, case can or should be pursued. If that person would like to schedule a consultation in the future, they should feel free to contact you.

If they later set up a consultation, fantastic. If not, you’ve avoided a client who won’t abide by your advice or follow the processes you’ve put in place to effectively run your office.

4. The no-show

This one is fairly straightforward: a potential client who fails to show up for a scheduled consultation without cancelling ahead of time is hardly on the road to being a client, and has demonstrated disrespect for the attorney’s time.

Still, emergencies happen and mistakes are made. One rescheduling for an apologetic client is generally warranted. But not two.

A pattern of failing to show up when scheduled tells you that this person won’t respect the attorney’s time, and won’t consider any responsibility during the case sufficiently important or urgent. Needed documents won’t be supplied. Bills won’t be paid.

5. The client who expects you to redeem the profession for all bad lawyers everywhere

A potential client with a case started – and bungled – by another attorney or notario may in fact be a wonderful client. There are incompetent attorneys (and non-attorneys) out there who may have charged a full (or outrageous) fee and either failed to help the client or made their situation dramatically worse. Even the best qualified and best intentioned attorneys occasionally make mistakes, perhaps losing the client’s confidence.

If you see a path to fixing the problem, and the client understands the value of your contribution and is willing to compensate you accordingly, you may end up with a gratifying representation and a grateful client happy to refer their friends.

However, the client needs to be ready to move away from the idea that they’ve already paid for a result, and that as an immigration attorney you owe them that result. You aren’t the professional (or semi-professional) who caused the initial problem and owes this client recompense. You are the professional who offers a solution, and deserves to be paid for your expertise and hard work in providing that solution.

6. Conclusion

Turning away a potential client is never a first choice; it’s neither how a practice stays afloat nor how we get satisfaction from this work. Newer practitioners in particular may be afraid to turn potential clients away when less busy (and less funded). But, this is often a false choice: the alternatives of “client” or “no client” are too simplistic. In reality, the choice will often be between “no client” and “non-paying drain on your time” or “no client” and “malpractice suit/bar complaint.”

A little effort and observation at the very front end of a case can spare quite a few headaches down the road.

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