Not every potential client who walks through the door is worth the trouble. There's the controlling "my uncle is a lawyer and he said..." client. There's the "can you bill me later... at a lower rate" client. And, of course, the overly specific herpes defense client.
When you start out, you'll be tempted to take every case that walks in the door. First of all, don't. And as you get further along in your practice, not only will that feeling subside, but you'll get better at learning when to say no, and more important, how.
For now, here are a few ways, each of which is inspired by the many times I've been rejected, for softening the blow while still getting the message across:
1. It's Not You, It's Me.
This one is best used when a potential client is asking for you to venture into an unfamiliar practice area, or has an extremely complicated case that you aren't comfortable taking. Simply explain that you are an estate planning attorney, not a criminal appeals practitioner, or that their case is going to be really time consuming and therefore won't fit into your schedule, and then show them the door.
2. Yeah, We Need to Talk.
Some clients are reasonable and intelligent. You can speak to them directly, and explain that their case is weak and probably not worth their time and money in the long run. But finish things up by firmly stating that you do not want the case -- period.
3. I've Got This Friend You Might Like.
It's not your specialty. Or you don't have the time. That's fine. But what about the win-win rejection by passing the client on to a friend who is a better fit? The client will love you (and may send business your way just because you were so nice, helpful and professional), and the other attorney will feel the same way.
4. It'll Be $50,000 -- by Tonight.
If all else fails, simply asking for a ridiculously high retainer at the outset will scare most people off. And if they call your bluff, hey, at least you got $50,000 up front. For that kind of fee, a difficult client might be worth it.
Bottom Line: Just Say No.
The thing you always need to make clear when rejecting a client is that this is not an attorney-client relationship. A client who thinks you might represent him, even though you don't, is basically a malpractice suit in the making. If there is even a hint that the client might be confused about this, not only do you need to clarify then and there, but a follow-up non-engagement letter or email is a must.