Sometimes the best thing a lawyer can do for someone is to refuse to accept his or her case. I know that sounds awful at first blush. Certainly the person would not be seeking a lawyer if he or she did not feel the need for legal assistance. But there are some cases when a lawyer has an ethical duty to not accept a case, and sometimes it’s just the best thing for the potential client that the lawyer refuses to take on the client.
Lawyers have a fiduciary duty to their clients. A fiduciary duty is a legal duty to place someone else’s needs before one’s own needs. Breaching this duty by doing things that harm the client legally or financially can have criminal and other consequences for the lawyer. Starting litigation for a client when the case is frivolous is a breach of duty because it could get the client into legal trouble. It could also be a breach if the lawyer knew there was no remedy available for the client but still took the client’s money to work the case.
The lack of legal remedy is a major reason lawyers refuse clients. I have had numerous clients consult with me only to discover they do not have a case, not because they were not injured in some way, but because there is no legal remedy available for them. In many instances the law requires damages (the amount of money that represents the loss, injury, or damage sustained by the plaintiff) as an element of the cause of action. It is therefore possible for a plaintiff to perceive an injury to his person or property committed by a defendant, but the plaintiff actually did not sustain any loss that can be repaid by the defendant so the plaintiff has no case.
For example, imagine two neighbors in a suburban subdivision. If neighbor one steps on neighbor two’s yard while mowing his own lawn, a trespass has been committed. Neighbor two could sue neighbor one for trespass. But what are the damages? Neighbor one did no lasting damage to neighbor two’s yard. In court the judge would likely agree that a trespass has been committed, but the judge would likely not award any damages to the plaintiff. Meanwhile the plaintiff has likely spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on legal fees and gets nothing in return from the court except a document that basically says “Plaintiff, you are right. So what?”. Most lawyers would pass on a case like this one because they see it offers no real benefit for the client but costs the client money.
There are other reasons a lawyer might refuse to accept a case or client. For example, the proposed defendant might be “judgement proof” meaning he or she has no money or assets to go after. Or the lawyer might be “conflicted out” meaning he or she has interacted or represented one of the proposed parties in the litigation before. Any given attorney can turn down a case on any given day, but if no attorney will take your case, that is a sign that you likely do not have a legitimate case.
If you are in a situation where you think you need a lawyer, but no lawyer seems to want your case it is likely because there is nothing of value to be gained for you. As always, this essay is for educational use only and is not a substitute for competent legal representation. But if you seek a lawyer and get turned down, I recommend asking the lawyer(s) why the case is not attractive because many times if a lawyer does not want your case it’s because the case is not a good one for you.