What It Really Means When a Lawyer Says, ‘I’m Too Busy to Take Your Case’

It could mean they really are busy … or it could mean that your case is a stinker. Here’s how to tell the difference.

A busy executive shrugs her shoulders.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There are times when the greatest help your lawyer can provide is in not doing what you request.

In a recent article about suing for defamation, we examined the Streisand Effect, explaining that sometimes filing a lawsuit can totally backfire, as Barbra Streisand learned the hard way. Lawyers who want to protect their clients from unneeded negative publicity cite the Streisand Effect as the rationale for telling them, “Here’s why I recommend against filing that lawsuit. I am here to help, not hurt, you.”

But what if you’ve got – in your opinion – a solid case, are trying to find an attorney to file suit, but the lawyers you speak with think the whole idea is wrong? They don’t want to hurt your feelings, so what do they say?

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“Jim” was one of those clients, as I learned in a phone call from him and his wife, “Theresa.”

14-Year-Old Son ID’d in Vandalism Incident

“Our 14-year-old son, Caleb, attends a private school that has a grooming standard – no crazy hairstyles allowed, and students must be respectful and quiet in class,” Theresa said.

“But recently he started interrupting teachers and wearing his hair in outlandish ways to school that makes him a real standout in an unacceptable way. He has been taken to the vice principal’s office several times, given warnings, with little change in his ‘in your face’ behavior.”

Jim interrupted his wife, saying, “I disagree and support Caleb! The school is after him!”

The couple related that a teacher – working in his classroom one Saturday afternoon – identified Caleb by his hair as one of three youths who vandalized school property. The police were called, and the next day – Sunday – came to their home and took Caleb to the police station to be interviewed.

“But he was with us, at home all Saturday!” Jim yelled. “We told the police that, but they only believed us when school video was retrieved showing three kids who are not even students at the school, one of whom had a hairstyle similar to our son’s.”

I Want to Sue the School and Police!

Jim made it clear that he wants “to sue the school, the teacher and the police,” but Theresa thinks, “This is completely wrong. Everyone was polite with our son, and they had to do their job. They cleared him immediately after viewing the video, and in fact, Caleb experienced firsthand the results of how appearance can be so important.”

“I have called the top personal injury lawyers in our town,” Jim said. “They all say that we have a great case, but were too busy or don’t handle school matters. I asked to be referred to a colleague, but none of them had any suggestion. Mr. Beaver, is this a conspiracy or what?” he wanted to know.

Translation of ‘Great Case, But I’m Too Busy’

Lawyers do not reject good, moneymaking cases. No matter how busy, there is always a way to take on a new case. This often means signing up the client and then associating in a colleague in return for a percentage of compensation recovered.

A good example are the “We’ll Fight for You!” auto accident law firms that advertise on television, billboards, on buses and online. Staffed mainly by paralegals, they take in thousands of accident cases hoping for one with catastrophic injuries or death – which they refer to litigation counsel for a split of attorney fees.

If you hear, “This really is a great case, but I am swamped right now so you will need to find some other attorney,” AND the lawyer gives you names of another attorney to call, this is some evidence that you have a case worth pursuing.

However, if you ask for names but are told, “I just don’t know anyone to refer you to,” this is probably code for “I am not going to send this nothing of a case to a colleague who will get mad at me.”

Clients Are Filtered by Gatekeepers

Today, depending upon where you live and the number of lawyers in your area, the chances of actually speaking with an attorney are often greatly reduced even though you may have phoned credible, competent and professionally run law firms.

Why? It’s because a paralegal will act as a gatekeeper, filtering out those calls that do not present a “real” moneymaking case.

As Jim lives in a town with a population of 100,000, he was able to speak with lawyers, hearing the same thing: “Great case but I am swamped!” and was given no referrals, and worst of all, wasn’t told why no one was interested.

Lawyers do not like telling clients or potential clients, “You’ve got no case. Forget it.” They are afraid of being sued for malpractice, when, in fact, there was a real case, but the information given to the lawyer left out important details.

There is a point when clients need to use common sense. That’s what I told Jim after he said, “I actually spoke with attorney X (one of the most successful personal injury lawyers in his town) who told me the same thing – that he was just too busy.”

“Jim, I would tell you the same thing,” I said. “Here is my suggestion: Figure out what’s bothering Caleb. Don’t blame the school. But I have a referral – to a family therapist.”

“Please give me the number, Mr. Beaver,” Jim said. “And thanks for taking the time to talk with us. No one else seemed to care, but you do.”

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."