Oregon State Bar Bulletin — NOVEMBER 2002

Managing Your Practice
Should I Take This Case?
Ask yourself these five questions first
By Peter Balsino & Robin Baade

Just as the key to a successful marriage is marrying the right person in the first place, the secret to a satisfying law practice is choosing the right clients and cases. Easier said than done? Before you sign your next fee agreement, ask yourself these five questions.

1. Why do I want this case?
This may seem like an obvious question, which is why many of us skip right over it. But it’s the single most important question to ask yourself before taking on any new matter. It sets the standard for your satisfaction with the case and gives you a tangible goal to work toward.

So what do you hope to get out of it? A good fee? An interesting fight? The chance to help a client you care about? Be honest. If work is slow and you’re happy for the fee, admit that. It will make it easier to accept phone calls on the weekend if the client turns out to be more high-maintenance than you like. Are you trying to develop expertise in an area? Then maybe the experience you gain will make up for slow payment or other hassles. The point is, no case or client is perfect. There will be headaches no matter what you do. But if you can keep in mind your original motivation for taking the case, you might find that you are getting exactly what you want from it, despite the attendant grief.

2. How will taking this case affect the rest of my practice?
This question involves two issues: money and time. Is the fee you’ll receive worth the use of your resources? Is it worth the time you’ll have to take away from your other cases and clients?

You’ve heard it before: Most businesses make 80 percent of their profit from 20 percent of their clientele. A quick review of your own client list should reveal the truth of this. Before accepting any new case, ask yourself where it will fit. Will it become part of your 20 percent of well-paying, enjoyable work, or will it go in the 80 percent stack with all the other cases that chip away at your time without getting you much further ahead?

How do you make the new case fit into your 20 percent? Decide what fee you need to make the case worth your while. Factor in issues of inconvenience, time pressure and acrimony of the parties. Is this the type of case that requires a lot of work on the front end? Will you have to cancel a vacation, put other clients on hold, or hire additional staff? Ask for a retainer large enough to compensate for those disruptions to your normal practice. You can structure a fee agreement many different ways to make a case profitable — don’t be afraid to be creative. If the prospective client doesn’t want to pay you what you need, then you’re both better off not getting involved. If there is nothing that will make taking the case worth it to you, then be good to yourself and turn it away.

The use of your time is just as important as your fee. Every case, no matter how small, takes time. The day holds 24 hours. This will never change. Your workday may expand or contract, depending on how many weekends and nights you’re willing to work, but generally you have a set amount of waking hours to work with every day. You can spend those hours in productive work for your best clients (the 20 percent), or you can scatter your time among lots of little jobs (the 80 percent).

Consider whether you want to commit your energy to this new project, or whether you would rather reserve your energy to give better service to the clients and cases you already have. And keep in mind that saying 'no' to a bad case leaves you time to say 'yes' to a better one.

3. Is this the kind of case I like?
Just because you focus your practice in a certain area of law, that doesn’t mean you have to take every case available in your field. You might be a domestic relations attorney who hates bitter custody battles. Or maybe you’re a criminal defense attorney who can’t stomach certain crimes. Or you’re a personal injury lawyer whose palms turn clammy at the thought of a high-profile case.

There’s no shame in admitting that you want to enjoy your work. There’s also no shame in admitting that a certain case is more than you can handle right now, in light of the other pressures of your practice. Every time you turn away a case that you know in your gut you don’t want, you’ve just improved the quality of your work life. Dissatisfaction rides on the back of powerlessness. The more willing you are to take control of the kinds of cases you accept, the longer you’ll find satisfaction in your career.

4. Do I know enough about this area of the law?
The answer to this question can work both ways: It can persuade you to take a case you might not otherwise, or it can convince you to turn it away.

Maybe your answer to 'Why do I want this case?' was that you want to expand your practice to include new areas — maybe personal injury or real property litigation. You decide you’re willing to put in the extra time to educate yourself, even though that time may be uncompensated. Be honest, though: This may be the time to associate on the case someone more familiar with the nuances of the field before striking out on your own.

On the other hand, you may decide you don’t know enough about a particular area of law to represent the client effectively, and you don’t have the time (or desire) to learn right now. Admit that to yourself and turn away the case with a light heart. Your malpractice carrier will thank you.

5. Am I taking this case simply because someone I like/respect/ owe referred it to me?
If this client came to you on his own, would you take his case? Would the case pass the first four tests above? Do those questions become irrelevant simply because someone has flattered you with a referral?

If a case feels wrong for you, don’t let vanity or a sense of obligation muddy your judgment. Remember: You will be investing your time, your energy, your reputation in whatever case you accept, so your first responsibility is to yourself. If you would not take this case or client but for the referral, have the courage to turn it away. Set the prospective client free to find someone who will be more enthusiastic about his case. Think of it as performing your public service for the day.

You know from experience that sometimes you refer matters to other lawyers just to get a prospective client off the phone. You probably aren’t thinking, 'If she doesn’t take this one, I’ll never send her another case again.' On the other hand, if you send a lawyer a case that she mishandles because she never should have accepted it in the first place, what are the chances you’ll send more work her way?

The bottom line remains: You, and you alone, need to decide which cases are right for you. The longevity of your career — as well as your continuing satisfaction with practicing law — depend on your willingness to decline the cases that aren’t right for you. Have the courage to build a practice that suits you. You will be able to serve your clients better, and you’ll improve their chances of finding you still practicing law when they need you again.

Peter Balsino and Robin Baade are free-lance writers and attorneys in Arizona. They continue to strive for the perfect balance between work and family life.

© 2002 Peter Balsino and Robin Baade

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