When to Walk Away and When to Run

Saying no to potential clients

When to Walk Away and When to Run

In the grand tradition of the Bar, a sense of justice and professional responsibility gave root to the concept that lawyers should accept any potential client in need of their services. Renewed calls for lawyer participation in facilitating access to justice also encourage lawyers to serve the public through legal representation. Financial considerations in an unsteady economy may entice lawyers to assume a broader range of new clients. There are many reasons to accept new clients, and doing so is and always has been a cornerstone of our profession.

However, there are also many reasons to say no. Some of these reasons are evident in the Law Society of BC Code of Professional Conduct (the “Code”). For example, a lawyer cannot take on a new client where there is a conflict of interest, except as expressly permitted in the Code (Code, s. 2.1-3, s. 3.4). The Code is also clear in stating that a lawyer must not take on a matter if he or she is not competent to handle it and could not become competent without undue delay, risk or expense to the client (Code, s. 2.1-3, s. 3.1-2).

Other reasons for saying no may not be as apparent. Understanding these reasons requires a lawyer to consider his or her personal values, as well as to examine the client and the situation at hand. Through the Code, the Law Society of BC sets a common standard of professional responsibility for all BC lawyers and endeavours to maintain the public’s confidence in lawyers as a group. Our obligations (and reputations) are based on offering undivided loyalty to a client’s cause and to advancing our client’s interests to our utmost ability. Fulfilling this obligation may not always be possible. If a lawyer’s personal values are inconsistent with the client’s cause, and this prevents the lawyer from providing his or her highest service, the lawyer ought not to take the retainer.

Considering who the client is may also give reason to say no. Canadian sanctions legislation prohibits acting for certain clients, with high penalties for doing so. In addition, the Law Society frequently issues alerts advising lawyers of scams involving fraudulent clients. Priority should be given to reviewing these alerts and taking measures to avoid falling prey. Sometimes, however, fraudulent activities may be masked by an apparently legitimate engagement. For example, we know of a lawyer who was approached by a person seeking assistance which included legal research related to the detection of money laundering. While this may have been legitimate, the client’s behaviour and questions caused the lawyer to feel suspicious, and the lawyer ultimately refused the work. A few months later, the lawyer’s gut instincts were proven correct when a news article reported that this person had been charged with fraud.

Saying no to a potential client can be difficult, but sometimes it is the right and only choice to make.