Sunday, August 17, 2008

How I Decide Whether to Take on a New Case

I don’t take on every potential lawsuit that comes my way. As time goes on, I am becoming more selective about which matters I will act on. I started out as a generalist, but my litigation practice has become more focused on estate and trust litigation, although I occasionally handle other types of lawsuits.

I have developed some criteria I use for deciding whether I am interested in taking on a new case.

First, I must have a sense that there is some legal merit in my client’s (or prospective client’s) case. I get many inquiries from people who feel that they should receive an inheritance or greater inheritance. Unless I can find both a legal and factual basis for a claim, I won’t take it on. This does not mean that I know the case will succeed at trial (results are never certain), or that I won’t take on a novel case. But it is not enough, for example, to challenge a will in British Columbia because you believe that the testator who has since died, wanted you to get an inheritance, but left you out of the will.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a lawyer, just because one lawyer tells that you do not have a case does not mean that another lawyer can’t find an approach that will work. In some cases, it is necessary to explore a variety of possible claims. For example, if you are a step-child seeking who has been disinherited by your step-parent in British Columbia, you will not be able to apply to vary the will under the Wills Variation Act. But you might have some other claim, such as a claim in unjust enrichment if you provided your step-parent with substantial care with the reasonable expectation that you would be left something. Accordingly, sometimes it is worth asking more than one lawyer, especially if the first lawyer you consult does not have significant experience in the area of law for which you need advice.

Second, I won’t take on a case if doing so is inconsistent with my values. I sometimes get inquiries from people who tell me that they want to make it as difficult or painful as possible for someone else, usually another family member. Lawsuits are stressful enough without going out of your way to hurt somebody else in the process. Life is too short.

Third, the case must make financial sense for my client. Lawsuits are very expensive, even when they settle. If it is apparent that the costs of proceeding will outweigh any benefit to the client, it is not worth pursuing. This does not mean that there must always be a large amount of money involved in every lawsuit. Many, perhaps most, people are motivated to sue by something other than money. Sometimes disputes about relatively small estates can be resolved cost-effectively. But if I think that someone interested in retaining me will have to spend so much that there really is no benefit to him or her, I won’t accept the retainer.

Fourth, I won’t take on a new client unless I feel that I can meet their expectations. I like to ask during the first meeting what my client hopes to accomplish. In some cases prospective clients expect results that I consider very unlikely. Sometimes, they expect it to be resolved faster than I think can resolve it. Or they may expect it will cost less than what I charge.

Fifth, I must have the time to take on a new case. Occasionally, someone calls and needs something done immediately. If I have too many other commitments, I can’t take it on.

Sixth, I need to feel confident that I am the right lawyer to take the case on. I don’t need to have all of the answers to a client’s problems after the first interview (I usually don’t). But I have to be able to find solutions, if I am going to benefit my client. If I think another lawyer is more experienced in a type of dispute, or is a better match for the person consulting with me, I refer that person to the other lawyer.

Seventh, I want clients who respect what I do, and will respect my experience and judgment. I find the vast majority of people who consult with me want my advice, will always consider it, and will more often than not take it. It is not just a question of knowing the law; my job is to provide objective advice to my clients, who being humans may not be as objective about their own cases. The final decisions about whether to accept or make an offer to settle or to go to court always remains with the clients.

But on a few occasions, I have met with people who consider a lawyer to be their mouthpiece; they appear to want to run every aspect of their case, telling the lawyer exactly how to proceed, down to the minutia of how questions on cross examination or how arguments are phrased, without regard to the lawyer’s experience or judgment. To my mind, what is the point of hiring a lawyer, if you are not going to run every aspect of the case yourself?

Eighth, it must just feel like a good fit.

There is nothing more satisfying than representing someone with whom I have a great lawyer-client relationship in a case I believe in. The client and I should work well together, exchanging information and ideas to achieve the client’s goals. This kind of relationship is essential for both the client and the lawyer.

No comments: