Readers’ comments and feedback on this series of “Whoops—Legal Practice Malpractice Prevention” articles are welcomed and appreciated. References in the articles to “safest courses to proceed,” “safest course,” or “best practices” are not intended to suggest that the Colorado Rules require such actions. Often, best practices and safest courses involve more than just complying with the Rules. In practice, compliance with the Rules can and should avoid a finding of discipline in response to a grievance or a finding of liability in response to a malpractice claim. However, because most claims and grievances are meritless, effective risk management in the modern law practice involves much more. Hence, best practices and safer courses of action do more; they help prevent and more quickly defeat meritless claims and grievances. Other than billing, there is virtually nothing that attorneys dread more than addressing potential conflicts of interest. After all, resolving conflicts issues requires and attorney to focus on why not to take on a new representation rather than how to get the business in the door. However, unidentified or unresolved conflict issues cost lawyers more—in both clients and money—than most attorneys realize.
For many attorneys in today’s difficult economic world, screening clients seems like a far-fetched concept, akin to telling a starving man to watch what he eats. Many firms are just glad to have clients; screening the few they have appears to be the least of the firm’s worries.
However, according to the data, problem clients are often worse than no clients at all. Clients who pay fees, but who also bring legal malpractice claims, only hurt—not help—the attorney and can result in a large net loss for the firm. The challenge comes in screening out the problem clients during the intake process.
Screening clients has a different meaning depending on the size, type, and location of a law practice. For solo practitioners, it will mean identifying the risk factors for new clients (preferably through use of a checklist) and then balancing the risks against the potential rewards of the representation. For smaller and mid-size firms, screening involves identifying standard practices and procedures suitable for the needs and expertise of the law practice, and ensuring that all of the lawyers in the practice consistently follow those rules. For larger firms, effective screening includes systems to ensure consistent compliance with the firm’s policies.
Every representation, whether for a paying client or for a pro bono client, requires that the attorney exercise good judgment about acceptance of the new client; and because it involves judgment, there is no formula for every decision regarding whether to accept a new client. However, there are some practices and procedures attorneys can implement when creating checklists and developing systems for screening prospective new clients.
Developing a Screening Method
Some indicators for problem clients seem obvious. Others are the product of data about legal malpractice claims and the risks of the modern-day law practice. The most important part of client screening is to adopt and follow a set of standard practices and procedures, including referring to a screening checklist, that apply to every new client and matter.
1. Ask the right questions.
Common sense goes a long way in detecting and avoiding problem clients. For example, one of the most telling questions to ask a new client is: “How many attorneys have previously represented you in this matter?” If the answer to that question is “seven,” the attorney will want to think long and hard about becoming the eighth. Clients who have been unhappy enough to hire and fire seven attorneys are unlikely to be happy with the eighth. Of greater concern is that, if their case or transaction does not go well in their eyes, they just might hire a ninth to sue the eighth for malpractice.
The lawyer should ask prospective clients other common-sense questions. For example: How many times have you been a party to litigation? Potential clients who have been parties to several prior cases should raise red flags. This is especially true for potential clients who have made a career of suing other people. Eventually, these serial plaintiffs make their way to also suing their attorney.
The realities of the proposed representation are also relevant when deciding to take on a new client. In making this assessment, consider when the work must get done. This involves calculating the first deadline for the new matter. Representations often do not end well if they begin on the eve of (1) the expiration of the statute of limitations for a plaintiff’s claim; (2) a scheduled closing for completion of a transaction or deal; or (3) any other imminent deadline. Unrealistic deadlines are red flags for a new representation.
Sometimes, there are good reasons a client reaches out to an attorney to undertake a representation on the eve of a pressing deadline. However, they are sometimes the same reasons an attorney should have second thoughts about accepting the representation. It could be that an earlier attorney fired the client because the client did not pay, or there could be insurmountable problems that have left the client desperate for immediate representation. Whatever the reason, the most significant questions attorneys should ask are: (1) When is the earliest deadline? and (2) Why is the client just now reaching out? The answers to these questions are important in deciding whether to accept the representation.
Another good question to ask is whether the prospective client can afford to pay the attorney fees associated with the representation. If there is no realistic chance of getting paid and the attorney takes the case anyway, the attorney assumes the risks of liability with no opportunity for compensation. This is a lose–lose proposition. Thus, a prospective client’s ability to pay is an important pre-representation topic that attorneys should candidly address.
Other things to consider when screening prospective clients include (1) possible conflicts with other clients; (2) whether the attorney has the expertise required to effectively handle all of the client’s issues; and (3) the role the client expects the attorney to play in the context of the client’s overall situation. These determinations are of particular concern, because they relate to an attorney’s ethical obligations toward the client.
For example, the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules or Colo. RPC) require an attorney to avoid conflicts with current and past clients or, alternatively, to take special care when entering into an engagement that could create potential conflicts. The Rules also address attorney competence, requiring that an attorney has the “legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” Additionally, the Rules allow an attorney to limit the scope of representation at the outset of an engagement, if reasonable. Thorough screening may reveal whether limiting the scope of representation from the outset is a prudent option under the circumstances, as opposed to declining the engagement, based on the client’s stated objectives. If the attorney has captured in writing the scope of the mutually agreed representation at the beginning of the engagement, that attorney will be in a far better position should the client later challenge the attorney on this front.
Certain types of engagements may be permitted under the Rules, but not under the Standards of Professional Conduct of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. Attorneys should be aware that the U.S. District Court has declined to adopt the state’s “unbundling” rule, Colo. RPC 1.2(c), which allows the provision of limited representation to pro se parties, as described in Colo. RPC 11(b) and Rule 311(b) of the County Court Rules of Civil Procedure. For example, in state court matters, an attorney may provide assistance to a pro se litigant without entering an appearance. The same attorney, however, is prohibited from “ghost writing” a pro se party’s filings in federal court. The attorney should turn away a potential client who is seeking the type of behind-the-scenes assistance that the U.S. District Court does not permit.
On October 10, 2014, the U.S. District Court promulgated proposed amendments to its local rules that include an opt-out from comment 14 to Colo. RPC 1.2(d). The comment, which the Colorado Supreme Court adopted on March 24, 2014, states that a Colorado attorney may counsel clients “regarding the validity, scope, and meaning” of the medical marijuana and recreational marijuana provisions of the state constitution, and “may assist a client in conduct that the lawyer reasonably believes is permitted by these constitutional provisions” and the laws implementing them, as long as the attorney also “advise[s] the client regarding related federal law and policy.” If the District of Colorado ultimately decides not to adopt comment 14, attorneys admitted to practice in that court would need to carefully consider whether they could accept engagements involving advice regarding the state’s marijuana laws.
In sum, thorough screening provides a double benefit to the prudent attorney. It decreases the attorney’s exposure to malpractice suits and fulfills several ethical obligations.
2. Consider what’s expected.
An attorney should inquire about the prospective client’s expectations—of both the representation and the attorney. Some clients simply expect their attorney to achieve a successful result on their behalf, without consideration as to how that end is achieved. These attorney-client relationships rarely end well. A candid conversation about what is possible, along with a description of what the attorney can and cannot do, is an important part of the screening process. If there are things the prospective client expects that the attorney is unable or unwilling to do, the attorney should decline the representation.
One other thing to watch for is a client who is “too good to be true.” Often, these are the same clients who expect an attorney to bend (or ignore) the rules. Their stories are full of contradictions, and they expect results regardless of means. Avoid the temptation of agreeing to represent them without conducting a thorough investigation; these may turn out to be problem clients, too.
3. Conduct some background research.
The Internet provides attorneys cost-effective tools for conducting fast preliminary background research on prospective clients. The research might turn up little, or it might disclose a prospective client with a history of problems that often extend to anyone and everyone around the client. Credit checks (with the consent of the prospective client) could reflect someone who either cannot or does not pay. A simple litigation search might reflect a prospective client who has sued his or her attorney before. These possible clients require a long look before an attorney would agree to the representation.
4. Create a client-screening system.
Inevitably, the client who creates the most problems is the one who escaped the screening filters. Effective systems make it next to impossible for potential problem clients to slip through the cracks. This means that a file cannot be opened or a matter billed unless the screening questions have been asked and the data collected. Hence, the certainty of the system is as important as the content of the screening itself.
 See Colo. RPC 1.7 and 1.8. Comment 3 to Rule 1.7, which addresses conflicts with current clients, states, in part, “[a] conflict of interest may exist before representation is undertaken, in which event the representation must be declined, unless the lawyer obtains the informed written consent of each client . . .” under the conditions provided in the rule.
 See Colo. RPC 1.1.
 Colo. RPC 1.2, cmts. 6 and 7.
 See D.C.Colo.L.Atty.R. 2(b)(1).