Don’t get yourself in a stew – when saying ‘no’ to a potential client is not just necessary but essential
After more than two decades of legal practice, I am often asked by younger colleagues for advice on a multitude of topics. The smallest detail of a case can be hugely significant – for example, the impact of a client’s courtroom attire is something young lawyers are often surprised by.
However, perhaps the hardest question to answer is when I am asked in what circumstances I would decline the opportunity to represent someone.
At the start of my career, I always took a positive approach, smiling and ready to help, assuming that every client would be reasonable and take reasonable advice. While the vast majority of people I deal with are happy to follow my advice – after all, that is why they hire me – over the years I have been approached by a number of people for whom an accurate description is a ‘country mile’ away from reasonable.
The risk of ending up in court representing an individual like this is not to be taken lightly. Particularly in family law, emotions often run high and litigation can become a manifestation of their ill-feeling towards one another. For even the most experienced lawyers, keeping your professional cool and focusing on the legal issues at hand can be tough when your client – or their former partner – is intent on wreaking havoc.
While the vast majority of people who do see their marriage breakdown are able to come through the other side of the anguish involved, there is a small group of people for whom the battle of divorce seems to be not just an opportunity to attack their ex-partner, but also anyone they perceive as hindering their ‘quest’ for justice. With alarming ease, once the heat of courtroom debate dies down, the focus of their wrath all too often turns to the lawyers.
Although not exclusively a female group, in my experience the overwhelming majority have been women. For this small band of warriors, the phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” certainly rings true.
An obvious – yet frequently overlooked – point is when you are asked to act after another firm has been dismissed. There are a number of perfectly valid reasons for instructing an alternative practice, but when you are the third or fourth firm to be engaged alarm bells should be ringing. Particularly where someone is highly critical of their previous lawyers, perhaps making oblique references to suing them, you should be on your guard.
These are tendencies of a client who feel they are the ‘victim,’ perhaps because they did not initiate the dissolution of the relationship, or their spouse was unfaithful. They are motivated by a sense of injustice that leads them to demand the unachievable. Some may have bugged, taped and searched through her partner’s data.
Furthermore, when the individual in question is the wife of a wealthy man, an unwavering belief that her husband has not disclosed his assets in full and is out to cheat her is a psychological barrier that more often than not is impossible to conquer.
Once I have identified one or several of these characteristics, the final nail in the coffin frequently comes in discussion around the ultimate settlement. I am always ambitious in my work, but there are limits an army of lawyers cannot penetrate. When someone has no sense of proportion and is not amenable to any reasonable deal, choosing instead to focus on allowing no stone to be left unturned in the search to denigrate and vilify the spouse who dared to leave her, then I have my answer and I will decline to act.
It may seem cruel, but the alternative outcome is all too predictable: no matter how good the settlement is, you will be greeted with bitter complaints and accused of abandoning your client. A divorcee’s plight is certainly worthy of our sympathy – but I’m afraid from a professional practice point of view, this is one client to avoid.
If you are a lawyer and you are consulted by a prospective client who appears to fit the profile of a ‘Bitter Divorcee’ – and they don’t only exist in England! – my advice is to think long and hard before accepting instructions.
If you do decide to act, here is my advice:
Lay out the ground rules as clearly as possible in writing.
Have your retainer signed immediately in the clearest possible terms.
Never attend an interview alone. Have another person present to take notes.
Always record your advice and attendances whether in person or by telephone in writing. Send a copy to the client as quickly as possible afterwards.
Bill your client regularly, and don’t let costs mount up.
Always agree your next steps with the client in advance and confirm in writing.
Be prepared to satisfy your client about costs.
Never, ever, delegate this client to a junior fee earner. They will be eaten alive.
A final note: since I qualified as a solicitor in 1980 (that long ago!) I’ve had the privilege of helping many thousands of people recover from a breakdown in their lives, caused by a breakdown of a relationship with someone who they had once loved very dearly.
However I have never forgotten the words of the late Lord Denning, one of the greatest judges of the 20th Century, when he was admitting us as solicitors. He told us that “as long as you do what you know is right in your head, you will never go wrong… no matter how unorthodox your actions may be.”
Whenever you think there is going to be a problem: be sure to jump on it with both feet.