Dealing with difficult people is a part of life. However, as an attorney, dealing with difficult clients presents its own challenges. In retail and other industries, some companies use a strategy of assuming the customer is always right and doing whatever they can to make the customer happy. While this strategy may work for attorneys in some instances, attorneys are faced with additional legal and ethical constraints that make dealing with difficult clients a little more challenging.
Justice Carole Curtis wrote a great article on this topic for the American Bar Association entitled “How to Handle Difficult Clients—Pointers That Will Help You Stay Sane and Safe.” I’ve summarized some of her points below:
Establish Your Role with the Client
It is important to remain in the role of advisor when dealing with a difficult client. Some clients want their attorneys to make difficult decisions for them. Instead of falling into this trap, she advises that lawyers advise their clients about their options and the consequences of those options.
Be Thorough in Your Documentation
It is essential to be fastidious in your documentation. While this is always important, it is even more so when dealing with a difficult client. She recommends documenting everything possible, including the content of phone calls, voice-mail messages, and e-mail messages. Make sure the documentation is complete, and includes the following:
• The client’s name
• The file name
• Who the contact was with
• The date of the contact
• The nature of the contact (phone call, meeting, voice mail, e-mail or the like)
• How long the contact took
• The details of who said what, including what the lawyer said
• Any instructions given during the contact
It is imperative to record clearly and in detail the information the client provided, as well as the advice the lawyer gave. This can be a problem area if not completed correctly. If issues develop later on, having this documentation can protect the attorney from liability.
Be Calm and Clear
Provide as much information as possible to the client in writing, as early as possible in the relationship. This can set the tone for the relationship and help prevent misunderstandings.
Include Your Staff in the Plan
Make sure that your staff know how to handle difficult clients and when to come to you. Let them know what policies and procedures are in place for dealing with difficult clients and what is and is not appropriate behavior. It is important to ensure that your staff are professional in dealing with difficult clients, but you should also make sure to step in when a client is mistreating your staff.
Manage Expectations from the Outset
Make sure to have very frank discussions with your clients very early on in the relationship. Sometimes, clients may have expectations that are unrealistic or are outside of the services you can provide. Specifically, you should discuss the following:
• Expectations about service
• Expectations about time
• Expectations about costs
• Expectations about results
It is important to be honest with clients about the results they are likely to achieve. When a client’s goals are unrealistic, and they are unable or unwilling to accept your assessment of the matter, acceptance of the case may need to be reconsidered.
In my experience, listening carefully to the client is the best way to develop a good working relationship. Often, the client is carrying a significant emotional burden (i.e., death of a loved one, divorce, child custody, personal injury, significant financial concerns), as well as dealing with a legal issue. While you are focused on their legal issue, it is important to pay attention to what is going on with the client emotionally. This can help you to identify a potentially problematic relationship and deal with any likely triggers early on. Additionally, when a client who is dealing with an emotional issue can sense that you are aware of and care about their emotional concerns, he or she is more likely to listen and accept your advice, thus eliminating problems later on.