As I launch into solo private practice, I’m finding client selection to be the issue that I’m really struggling with. I’m certainly not complaining — I know I’m extremely lucky to be having to worry about which potential clients to accept rather than worry about having any potential clients to vet. But one of the pieces of advice I’ve encountered over and over about going out on your own is be very, very careful about the clients you take.
I never struggled with this issue much when I was at legal aid. For most of my time there, the majority of my clients came through court appointments. If I was scheduled to take a case on a particular day, and a case came in, then I had a case. Later, when I was working in a section that had a different intake system, I took cases based on the merits of the case and/or whether the client’s situation was especially compelling. Sometimes, I would a case simply because I thought my client had been treated unfairly and, even if it was extremely unlikely that I would be able to get adequate redress for that wrong, I thought that there was value in giving my client the opportunity to challenge what was being or what had been done to them. I guess a shorter description would be, taking a case for the principle of the matter.
In some ways, it’s funny to think about having luxuries when being a legal aid lawyer, but that was certainly one of them. Of course, luxury can lead to overindulgence and, while focusing on the case and not the clients, I definitely ended up with some extremely difficult clients who made their cases much, much harder.
Now, the potential difficulty of the potential client is a major factor in my case selection. By difficult, I don’t just mean, is the client mentally ill (which was sort of the defining characteristic of my legal aid clients), I mean, what are the client’s expectations? is the client willing to listen to me about what a realistic outcome is? can the client afford to pay me to pursue their definition of a realistic outcome?
I’ve already turned down a custody case based on the above criteria. It’s the sort of case that, if I had done straight custody cases as a legal aid lawyer, I would have taken. I believe the client has been treated unfairly (if her version of events is at least 51% accurate), I believe that I had a decent chance of getting her an incrementally better result than what she would get if she was unrepresented. The case had some interesting legal issues. But, the case looked time and labor intensive. I questioned the client’s judgment based on some decisions she’d already made. At this point, I’m not willing to take a pro bono custody case — and the client didn’t have the funds to pay me, even at a reduced rate. So, I had to turn her down — which was really tough. But, in the end, it was the right decision for me. And I need to be somewhat selfish right now.