While you are interviewing your potential legal representative and assessing his/her relative strengths and weaknesses, the odds are good that your new legal friend is sizing you up as well.  Sure there are plenty of lawyers (especially in this economy) who will take almost any case. They will do so regardless of the client if the lawyer thinks or knows, there is a fee to be made.  Experienced, reputable attorneys however, assess each potential client using their own set of criteria.  Just as a potential client routinely decide not to hire the first attorney they meet, attorneys (yours truly included) frequently decline to represent a given client even if a preliminary review gives the attorney the impression that the potential case has merit.

If you are aware of the things that attorneys look at before your initial consultation, you can increase the chances of entering into a “happy marriage”.  If you know what your client is looking for going into a negotiation, you have an obvious advantage negotiating terms.  The attorney/client relationship is a far more intimate relationship and requires true team play to be successful.  Knowing what the other guy on your team is thinking as in any team sport is key.

Here are some of those traits and behaviors that attorneys like (and unlike) your author look for.  For simplicity’s sake we will call the potential client, the “client”:

1. How does the client answer questions? Does the client answer the questions being asked in a clear responsive way?  Some clients want to vent or act as if the attorney is a shrink, there for the sole reason of listening to the client’s well founded (or bogus) complaints.  Distilled to its essence, litigation is all about questions and answers. How well questions are constructed and posed and the quality of the answers, often determines the winners and losers. Sometimes, the law in a given situation is not clear enough so as to dispense with the need for a hearing or trial.

Evasive answers, ignoring the question posed, providing partial or misleading answers by “selecting” what information the lawyer “needs to know” are all signs of evasion.  Performing in such manner during a deposition or trial (especially in front of a jury) can usually guaranty defeat.  Failure to respond directly and clearly to the information that the lawyer deems important is enough for many attorneys to refuse to accept the client, even if the client wants to retain the attorney.  Such behavior portends future problems in the attorney/client relationship.  It is not unlike having a business partner with whom who are unable to have routine, simple two-way conversations.

2. Does the client listen and/or does he/she put words in my mouth?  Lawyers suffer this idiosyncrasy but doctors have it much worse.  The tip off is usually when following the lawyer saying something like, “Under the law you are liable, on the hook and responsible to pay the other guy….” The client retorts, “So you are saying that he can’t sue me and I am in good shape right”? Sounds funny here but in real life its anything but.  When it happens to us we always ask the client, “Where did you get that from?  I just said the exact opposite so I need to know how you think”.  Doctors have relayed their own medical versions of this interaction.  Here’s a real one;

Doctor to patient, “If you do not lose at least 50 pounds we can not operate and you will without doubt die within a year, give or take a month if you stay at this weight”.
Patient: “So as long as I don’t gain any weight you’re saying I can live for years. Great”.

Re-read that exchange.  We try to be direct and as blunt as possible.  A client who re-phrases and re-interprets generally starts off with the famous, “So what your really saying is…”

We cite to the definitive source on the subject – The Odd Couple (movie/play versions)

Felix: So in other words Oscar, you are saying is that ……. ”


Sometimes even lawyers say exactly what they mean in the words they intended to use.  If the client does not listen at the consultation odds are he/she won’t listen later on and will “go off the reservation”.  Like a patient not listening to the doctor, the prognosis is generally not good.

3. Ability to financially sustain the case?  Often the size of the initial retainer does not, nor is even intended to cover all of the legal fees and expenses which might/will be incurred if the case goes to and through trial.  Is the client possessed of sufficient means and/or income to pay any future bills in a timely fashion?  If you have borrowed the amount of the retainer from a friend how will you pay for additional legal fees and/or expenses, which will be incurred in the future?  If you can’t answer that question, don’t expect your attorney to answer it for you. Your lawyer will not finance all aspects of your case UNLESS you have a written, signed retainer agreement which specifically provides that your attorneys will pay for expenses, pending a monetary recovery via settlement or winning verdict. Do not expect this arrangement in other than personal injury or malpractice cases.

4. Is the client credible and likable?  Sorry to be the one to inform you that judges and juries are heavily influenced by both credibility and likability.  If for instance, the jury thinks that a witness has lied about even something relatively insignificant, the jury may reject other or all testimony given by that witness.  Judges so instruct jurors of that option before they go off to deliberate.  Juries and even judges tend to make greater monetary awards to litigants found to be likable.  No comments please about how unfair this sounds.  Its real life and all of us are guilty in one form or another of such behavior.  We go to stores where they smile and reward those vendors who seem to care about us.  Walt Disney and Sam Walton had a firm grasp of this obvious fact.   If you come across as a bitter creep to your lawyer, such attitude will likely not serve either of you well in the litigation game.

5.  How does the client “present”?  While hardly a fashion show, judges and juries require and/or expect a certain minimum level of appropriate overall appearance by litigants, attorneys and witnesses.   If you look like you came to the lawyer’s office directly from changing your transmission oil and smell that way to boot, your attorney is apt to think that you care little or not at all about how you are perceived by others.  If you don’t in fact care, swell.  Just do not expect an attorney to bust his/her gut for someone who does not appear to care about the opinions of others.  Remember judges, attorneys and jurors all come under the category of “others”.  My favorite line is the gentleman who insisted that he, “will not be judged by (me) or anyone else”!  I asked him if he ever heard of the word “trial” and if he happened to know what judges and juries do at such events.

6. Does/will the client read?  A large percentage of creative people suffer from dyslexia.  Many others have an aversion to reading.  They are able to read but simply choose not to.  Lawyers send letters and documents to clients for them to review, approve, sign, critique, amend and so on.  If the client does not choose to be involved in his/her own case by say, not reading, success is not likely to be achieved.

7. Will the client work on his/her own case?  We have had some clients who were outstanding in their preparation of documents, photographs, time lines and making themselves accessible by phone or e-mail.  Some clients want, assume, and expect that the lawyer will, “do all the work because that’s what I’m paying you for”.  On rare, very rare, occasions the client’s participation in his/her own case is of minimal importance and the lawyer can do most if not almost all, of the work.  99% of the time however, the client’s involvement is critical.  If the lawyer believes the client sitting before him/her is lazy or “can’t be bothered”, the barrister is likely to shy away from the case.

8. Prior legal history.  How does the client view the system, lawyers, judges, juries and witnesses?  Has the client sued, fired or been dissatisfied by a roster of attorneys?  Would a prior attorney be thrilled by the fact that he/she is the client’s former lawyer?  Does the client by virtue of prior lawsuits consider themselves an “expert” or virtual lawyer?  This is very similar to an ad agency, art director or client with a reputation for being difficult, impossible or a non-payer.  Attorneys don’t want to buy themselves aggravation.  We get enough grief during the regular course of business from sources outside of our control thank you.

9. The elevator test.   How would the attorney feel if he/she were to be stuck in an elevator with this client for say, two hours?  You need not feel like a life long friend ship would be born but if the mere thought troubles the lawyer he/she would be wise to note such feeling.  There will be times when attorney and client will be stuck together for hours on end at trial preparation, depositions or even trial.  You ought use the same test from your side of the table.

The above is just a sampling of factors many attorneys consider at an initial consultation.  Ask any experienced attorney and we guarantee he/she can serve up a dozen more.  The attorney/client relationship is both a two way street and partnership of sorts.  The economics and relationship work both ways.

Edward C. Greenberg