The Client Screening Process
You do not have to take on every client who approaches you for representation. While it may be difficult to turn away business, it is worth getting into the practice of screening potential clients to make sure the relationship will be a good fit. Obtaining as much information about the prospective client prior to meeting with them is a good practice. You should use an initial intake form for client information. This form is useful for client screening. The potential client should fill out this form before the initial consultation.
Client screening is a process that can help ensure you are not taking on the wrong clients for your practice, that clients are not taking on the wrong lawyer for their legal matter, that there are no conflicts to representing the client, that there would be no undue delay in providing service to the client, and prior screening makes the first meeting more efficient and allows the lawyer to consider an appropriate fee structure prior to first meeting. It is perfectly acceptable to advise potential clients that you require a couple of days to think about their case prior to meeting with them.
It is also reasonable to take time to consider whether you will accept the client's matter. If you do take this approach it is essential to advise the client in writing whether you accept or decline representation. If you decide not to represent the client, do not let them think you are protecting their interests; a prompt and clear non-engagement letter is required. Make sure to send it according to the time estimate you gave the client. If you decline the representation, alert the client to applicable limitation periods and do not give an opinion as to the merit of the case. In certain circumstances, where a limitation period is only days away, you may be under a positive obligation to commence action on behalf of the client even when not retained. Do so, but advise the client in writing immediately thereafter to confirm you are not acting for them and closing your file. Misunderstandings about whether or not a lawyer is representing a client are a common source of claims for malpractice.
If you decide to accept the client matter, confirm in writing. Be absolutely clear in the letter whether you accept the representation and set out the terms of retainer (a money retainer and an executed retainer agreement). Retainers and non-engagement letters are covered in greater detail in the Retainers module. These agreements are essential to set out the terms of your representation and compensation, the clients obligations and expectations, and circumstances to govern termination of the relationship. Make note of any limitations periods and take steps to preserve them. Similarly, make note of any documents received and set up appropriate bring forward dates.
Also see the Dealing with Difficult Clients module for discussion of how to deal with clients who present challenges.