The saying “choose your clients wisely” is the most important truth to developing a “sane” practice. The second is “always have a back door exit at your office.” The second, albeit rarely discussed, is just as important, especially when you have failed at the first.
I learned both of these lessons early in my practice when I took on a client who I wouldn’t take today. Yes, there were yellow flags, but for reasons I won’t discuss, I thought I had them covered.
Tricia L. Knight, Michigan 2000, is an attorney with Horizons Law Group LLC, Brookfield, where she practices employment law, representing both employers and employees, business litigation, and family law.
The lessons were learned over a year into the representation, after the matter had settled, while waiting for the defendant’s check to arrive. I had not met face-to-face with the client in a while, and was unaware that the client had relapsed into what I believe was active drug use. Unhappy with the reasonable wait for the settlement check, the client showed up at my office one afternoon looking for money. Certain that I, as a lawyer, had stacks of hundreds laying around my office, the client insisted he would not leave until I paid the settlement out of my own personal funds.
Two hours into the sit-in, nature gave us a break when the client left the office in search of a restroom. I suddenly saw a blur of belly as my six-months-pregnant legal assistant flew across the room and locked the office front door. When the client returned, realizing what had occurred, he did what any self-respecting drug addicted client in search of money would do … sat on the hallway floor right in front of the locked door.
Here is where the second, equally important, lesson came in. Had I put in a back door when designing the office, we would have been on our way home to our families. Instead, we were held captive within the walls of the firm. A building maintenance man eventually convinced the client to leave voluntarily.
Years later, the attorneys at Horizons Law Group LLC, with more than 80 years of collective wisdom, have learned our lesson on selectivity in client selection. However, even when you ensure there are no red or yellow flags involving your client, it can be difficult to assess the opposing party in that initial office consultation. This is especially true in contested family law cases, in which emotions run particularly high.
We recently had a couple of cases involving unstable unrepresented opposing parties. We posted emergency and nonemergency numbers around the office. This time around we had our emergency “back door” exit, and we strategized about an evacuation plan and emergency signals from reception.
When I told my coworkers I was writing this article, my legal assistant reached under her desk, pulled out a can of wasp spray (her version of pepper spray with a longer spraying distance), and said that she was prepared in the event she couldn’t make it to the back door quickly enough.
I guess that’s the third lesson. If you fail at the first two, make sure you have a can of wasp spray.