10 Signs The New Matter is a Dog (Before you even consider the merits)

TuckerTheDog-794626I’d been thinking of writing this post for awhile, and then Max Kennerly went and did a similar one, putting a fuse under my butt to get it done. His subject was Five Case Selection Tips for New Plaintiff’s Lawyers.

But while his was about the types of cases to reject, mine is more about the people that call. After being a lawyer for awhile, it becomes pretty easy to spot which cases are dogs…before you even consider the merits. Since the personal injury bar gets paid on contingency, vetting the case is pretty darn important.

We have a name for lawyers that don’t do a good job screening cases: Bankrupt.

So, without further ado, my ten quick and dirty rules for determining the case isn’t worth taking, regardless of its facts, and the potential client most likely shouldn’t be allowed in the door:

1. The call comes on Thanksgiving Friday, a real holiday, or some other time outside normal business hours. While that might be normal for criminal defense, for obvious reasons, it isn’t for personal injury law. If it isn’t important enough for the potential client to call when someone is likely to be around, the case isn’t likely to be any good.

2. The person refuses to speak to a paralegal. This means the potential client is familiar with law office procedures because the matter has been rejected many times before.

3. The potential client already has the medical records. This means the matter has been reviewed by others and rejected (though, in all fairness, you should find out who did the rejecting).

4. The request comes via email, but is not addressed to me with any salutation. This means the matter has been emailed to numerous lawyers.

5.  The request is a manifesto. It usually comes in Word format, single spaced, many pages, and rambles all over creation. You are neither the first, nor the last, to get this screed. You will not make it past the first paragraph, as it is utterly unreadable. If there’s a point, you’ll never find it.

6. The person who demands to know right away what the case is worth. The answer is nothing.

7. The person who guarantees the defendant will settle quickly. No, they won’t, as the caller is ill-informed (or delusional) about litigation. (Kennerly has this one also.)

8. The person who won’t answer your questions when you interrupt to solicit important information, and plows ahead to tell the story the same way it’s been told to the last 20 lawyers.

9. The quarrelsome caller. When you hit them with the claims the defense will make, they argue with you in a manner that indicates they’ve heard these issues before.

10.  The statute of limitations is about to expire. This means the potential client knew what the deadline was, and delayed. Even if the case has merit, this client will delay everything else once you get started. Don’t get started; the case isn’t as important to this person as you think it is.

Is it possible that there is a real case lurking within this list? Sure, anything is possible. But that’s not the way to bet.

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17 Responses Leave a comment

  • Chad Murray 2013.3.21 at 10:55 | Quote

    I wish I had read this post (and Kennerly’s) back in 2010 when I was a freshly minted baby lawyer at a personal injury firm.

    Now, as a preschool lawyer (or whatever you would call 3 years out), I can say I’ve met most of these clients at least once. Lesson(s) learned.

  • Eric Turkewitz 2013.3.21 at 11:17 | Quote

    These are the types of signs that ought to get the lawyer-radar beeping.

    And at three years out, you are past preschool if your mentoring was any good. With any luck, you’re out there trying a couple of smaller cases.

  • Max Kennerly 2013.3.21 at 15:58 | Quote

    Oh, yes, the manifesto. Automatic reject. #2 is a subtle one; when you first start out, you think it might just be a picky person who wants to cut to the chase on an important case. What you learn over time is that they’re cutting to the chase not because they have a stellar claim — those clients always respect the internal processes of a productive firm – but because they don’t want to waste their time if you’re also going to reject them like everyone else.

    I would add another worrying trait I have noticed, one that doesn’t become clear until you’re already investigating the case: the person who calls every single day for an “update.” The daily call reflects either an attempt to expedite their likely rejection, an effort to bully the lawyer into accepting, or unrealistic expectations about the nature of litigation. The daily call comes from the person who believes a lawyer can investigate potential claims and defenses in the same amount of time, and with the same amount of effort, as it takes a short order cook to put together a hamburger.

    One counterintuitive trait I’ve noticed: the amount of time a potential client spends calling you for updates is typically inversely related to the size of their case. Clients with large damages cases call me infrequently, and apologize for taking up my time, despite me telling them they can call whenever they want for whatever reason. Clients with minor injuries call repeatedly, and loudly complain “I’ve been leaving lots of messages and no one has called me back” if they don’t get a callback within an hour or two of a non-urgent message they left at 7:30pm.

  • Eric Turkewitz 2013.3.21 at 16:45 | Quote

    I would add another worrying trait I have noticed, one that doesn’t become clear until you’re already investigating the case: the person who calls every single day for an “update.”

    By that point, you’ve already made a partial decision on the merits (it’s good enough to spend time investigating).

    One counterintuitive trait I’ve noticed: the amount of time a potential client spends calling you for updates is typically inversely related to the size of their case.

    Same thing.

    But, with careful culling before you spend the time investigating — and I admit it takes some good guess work, which is why I did this post — these two categories will hopefully be minimized.

  • Guy S. DiMartino 2013.3.22 at 05:30 | Quote

    How about this one!
    The caller that has already done the research. Sending you the literature about the millions of dollars that so and so received from across the country and why their case is the same.

  • Old Geezer 2013.3.22 at 11:17 | Quote

    “The person who demands to know right away what the case is worth.”

    The media is your enemy here. Any screwball filing that gets media attention only serves to fertilize the ground for more of the same. Worse yet, if the plaintiff wins and the jury is drunk that day. Makes no diff if the award is then vacated/knocked way down on appeal.

    But then, people do buy lottery tickets and someone seems to win eventually. Not me, so far.

  • Eric Turkewitz 2013.3.22 at 11:33 | Quote

    The media is your enemy here. Any screwball filing that gets media attention only serves to fertilize the ground for more of the same.

    This is one of the great ironies of the tort “reform” movement that blasts out details of outlier verdicts: It actually encourages some people to call lawyers.

  • Elizabeth 2013.3.22 at 13:33 | Quote

    Is #3 really an automatic reject? Should you at least ask about where the records came from first? It wouldn’t occur to me to call a lawyer *before* I had my medical records in hand, because I would assume that they were important and that it would be more efficient to be able to provide them at the first meeting. But I also keep personal copies of most of my medical records anyway, so maybe I’m just a freak.

  • Eric Turkewitz 2013.3.22 at 13:40 | Quote

    Is #3 really an automatic reject?

    Automatic? No. But usually a pretty good indicator.

    It wouldn’t occur to me to call a lawyer *before* I had my medical records in hand…

    You are the exception, not the rule.

  • Chad Murray 2013.3.22 at 14:24 | Quote

    Another one I’ve run into more than once – stains and coffee rings on the documents that the client provides at the initial meeting. Very rarely do those documents belong to a stellar client.

  • Eric Turkewitz 2013.3.22 at 14:49 | Quote

    Another one I’ve run into more than once – stains and coffee rings on the documents that the client provides at the initial meeting. Very rarely do those documents belong to a stellar client.

    OK, that one is pretty funny…but this is, after all, a matter of culling before they get that far. As a general matter, those on the list above never get in the door. And that is most important for the last one where the statute of limitations is running.

  • Mike Pospis 2013.3.22 at 15:24 | Quote

    Great list. I’d add:

    a) people who describe the facts of their case using words like “conspiracy”, “plot”, etc.

    b) people who use terms of art a bit too readily – e.g. (in my employment practice) “hostile work environment”, “quid pro quo”, “constructive discharge”, etc. This tells me either that they have spoken to one or more lawyers or that they have conducted “legal research” and are telling me what they think I want to hear. (I suppose the personal injury analogue would be a prospective client who says they have suffered a “serious injury” or that the defendant had “constructive notice” of a dangerous condition.)

  • Chad Murray 2013.3.22 at 15:32 | Quote

    Another one:

    “I’m calling from a local hospital. I was in a really bad accident. Can you come to me? I’m on the floor.”

    Having handled mental hygiene matters, you know that particular floor is the inpatient psych ward.

  • Eric Turkewitz 2013.3.22 at 15:44 | Quote

    @Mike Two excellent additions.

  • Ralph 2013.3.26 at 13:03 | Quote

    Subcategory to (9):
    Once you advise the caller that there may be a good defense based on facts and law you explain, he/she responds: “You mean to tell me that it’s totally ok for a person to [whatever the defendant did] and there’s nothing anyone can do about it?”

  • Sev 2013.3.27 at 20:01 | Quote

    Originally Posted By Eric TurkewitzIs #3 really an automatic reject?

    Automatic? No. But usually a pretty good indicator.

    It wouldnâ��t occur to me to call a lawyer *before* I had my medical records in hand…

    You are the exception, not the rule.

    I’m currently looking for a lawyer to handle a malpractice case for my mother, and I was advised by another lawyer I know (whom I was asking for recommendations) that we should have the medical records in-hand when we go calling on them.

    (This might be because of the nature of the allegations — namely, neglect. In spite of presenting with a condition for about three years, my mother couldn’t get a referral to a specialist. Finally she went to a hospital, where they found out that she had cancer, and had ‘for a long time.’)

    …So, which is it? Scare off the lawyers with medical records, or have them to help reinforce your allegations?

  • Eric Turkewitz 2013.3.27 at 20:25 | Quote

    Scare off the lawyers with medical records, or have them to help reinforce your allegations?

    There isn’t anything wrong with saying, Joe Matrimonial, Esq. gave me your name as a malpractice attorney and told me to get them before contacting you.

    Usually (though obviously not always) possession of the records simply means that another lawyer has already looked. But this isn’t an absolute thing, and most lawyers would likely shrug it off with your simple explanation. Particularly if they have a good grasp of what the actual issue is (I showed my doc a lump in my breast in June 2011 and she said not to worry and didn’t order any tests. A year later I found out I had cancer in that exact spot.)

    A sharp grasp of the defining issue goes a long way in making a presentation to an attorney.

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