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Over the course of nearly 7 years of running a solo law practice, I've learned that case screening (read: client selection), without a good system in place, can be one of the biggest time sucks and burnout inducers for solos and small firm lawyers.
You really just need two things: a simple flowchart based on your practice niche, and one powerful question. Today I'll tell you what that question is, but first, some background.
Living legend Gerry Spence tells us “love your client, not your case,” but face it -- we don’t hit it off with everyone who calls us.
Unfortunately, new client intake can't be easily delegated to a rookie lawyer or an assistant, unless that assistant is very experienced. (If YOU are a rookie lawyer, please don’t take offense. We all start out somewhere.) If you do delegate it, it's almost impossible to get the tasks done without having to supervise somebody hands-on.
You might as well just do it yourself.
So that's what I did in the beginning. Whether you are a new lawyer, or just new at solo practice, doing intake calls and getting stuck with a few less-than-awesome cases is a great and patient teacher. You begin layering deep levels of unconscious competence. Sometimes you just "know" on a gut level before a person finishes telling you his name that you want to help him, or want to run.
Case selection is really client selection.
When I was a new solo, it was five years after I was admitted to the bar. In my previous jobs, I was assigned cases. I learned a lot about how to spot the wrong case, but in an after-the-fact way. When I went solo, I had to learn how to be the initial gatekeeper.
I developed a thick skin (again!) and a few questions that are particular to my practice area (that's the flowchart). There's one, however, that became the fastest shortcut to yes or no:
"Have you ever been involved in any other court cases, and if so, what?"
This is the single most powerful intake question. It opens up a floodgate of information, especially if you follow up with asking them how it made them feel. You'll be able to decline someone who is a serial filer of frivolous pro se or small claims lawsuits, who is just trying to use you. You'll learn if someone has felt betrayed by a system that let a drunk driver off with a slap on the wrist if that person's family and life was irreparably harmed by that drunk driver. You'll learn if someone has a bankruptcy that causes them shame, or a divorce that cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
If you are in a competitive practice area, your potential new client will feel respected and heard by you, and you are likely to be a standout choice when they're shopping around for a lawyer. If you choose to represent them, then you'll then be able to tailor your counseling to them about their current case based on an already-deep understanding of their experience with the "system."
When I coach other lawyers on this issue, they are amazed at how quickly this question helps them turn away time wasters and understand new clients better and faster. If you try this question, I'm confident you'll make intake decisions more efficiently and end up liking your clients a whole lot more. You might even start enjoying intake and feel like you're making a new friend.
If you want to deeply explore of the topic of loving your clients and not their cases, and the benefits of emotional honesty in law practice, definitely read Win Your Case by Gerry Spence.
Do you struggle with not loving all your clients? Are you happier picking your own clients? Do you wish you could pick your own clients?
Image credit: wordartsme.com; public domain clip art