Reasons for Screening and Things to Look For In Screening Clients and Cases

There are many reasons to screen a client and a case, including to:
  • determine if any conflicts exist;
  • avoid taking on difficult clients;
  • avoid taking on clients who are fraud artists;
  • ensure that you are not taking on matters that are outside of the scope of your competence and knowledge;
  • ensure that you have the time to be diligent and prompt in meeting all deadlines imposed by either the client or the legislation; and
  • ensure you will be paid for your services rendered in accordance with a retainer agreement.
When screening clients and cases, there are many things you should look for and consider.  Allow yourself to trust your instincts.  When dealing with a potential client who has just left or fired his or her previous lawyer, for example, ask appropriate questions to determine why the prospective client is seeking a change.  Pay attention to what they say and satisfy yourself that their reasons seem well founded.  You may consider asking for written permission to contact their former counsel to discuss why representation was terminated and to ensure that there are no outstanding issues of which you should be aware.
Observe a prospective client who is overly aggressive or abusive when dealing with your staff.  Consider whether you will be able to take control of the situation. Also consider whether you want to act for family members and friends, which can sometimes be difficult and problematic.  
Other important considerations include:
  • Does the potential client's matter fit in with your area of practice?
  • Does the potential client have a case?
  • Is the individual asking you to engage in criminal or fraudulent activity?
  • Will the potential client's matter require more resources and time than you are capable of committing?
  • Will you have adequate time to prepare?
  • Does the potential client have the ability and willingness to pay your fees?
  • Will the matter require more fees and costs than it can potentially recover?
  • In addition to performing a conflict check, consider whether it is appropriate (even absent a conflict) for you to act for the client. For example, the client may be seeking representation against a party that you may wish to represent, or is part of an industry or other group within which you act for others.
  • What do your instincts tell you about the potential client? If the potential client is sending you troubling signals, whether it be in their tone, words, or manner, explore matters further before accepting (or rejecting) the retainer.
  • Review correspondence from the file. Is it excessive in volume (repeated letters from the client saying the same things) or tone? Does the client have a clear and accurate understanding of the proceedings and results to date?
  • Does the prospective client have unrealistic expectations?
  • Are you competent to take on the client matter? Read section 3.1 of the Law Society of New Brunswick Code of Professional Conduct, hereinafter “Code of Conduct”, and in particular rule 3.1-1 for the definition of “competent lawyer”.
  • Is the client a fraud artist? Verify the identity of new clients to reduce the chance you will be the victim/dupe of a fraud artist. Refer to the Law Society's Rules on Client Identification
  • Does the potential client have the capacity to instruct counsel? Client capacity and the procedures to follow are set out in rule 3.2-9 of the Code of Conduct.
Always remember that before accepting a retainer you must be satisfied you have the ability and capacity to deal adequately with any legal matters to be undertaken (rules 3.1-1 and 3.1-2 of the Code of Conduct).
This list is not exhaustive.  Screening potential clients and cases will help you ensure that you provide all your clients the quality of service they are entitled to expect, as well as minimize your exposure to risk by limiting the number of problem clients and cases you take on. Client screening is a skill you will develop over time, and you should adapt your screening procedures to account for your experience and develop a model that works for you.