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The difficult legal client survival guide

how to deal with difficult legal clients. image: a man in professional clothing yelling angrily into an old-fashioned telephone

If you have been practicing law for any length of time, you’ve surely come across one or two difficult clients.

We’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill nervous client or the client who likes to intellectually spar with you because, well, because they’re paying you to think. No, for purposes of this survival guide, we’re talking about really, really difficult clients. The nightmare clients.

We’ll get into the specifics of what those clients look like below.

First, however, let’s take a moment to practice some compassion.

After all, these folks are not lawyers and most are relatively unfamiliar with our justice system. It can be confusing. It can move slowly. Judges can make incorrect decisions. All of those things can be mind-bending to the uninitiated.

Consequently, some people act out in an extremely negative way.

That said, you still have to deal with them. Here are our tips for surviving really, really difficult clients before and during your representation.

How to spot a difficult client before the trouble starts

Certainly, there are more clinical descriptions of difficult clients than what I’m about to provide.

In my experience, however, the majority of difficult clients exhibit several of these top 10 nightmare-client-personality-quirks (“NCPQ”) at once.

  • They’re never wrong, no matter how outlandish their position is.
  • They interrupt judges and have emotional outbursts in court.
  • They believe everyone is out to screw them and remind you daily that legal professionals are crooks.
  • They think their case is worth at least 20 times the amount of actual damages they can prove.
  • They treat law firm staff even worse than they treat the attorneys.
  • They do not understand that you have other cases or even a life outside of the law firm (therefore, they expect you to be at their beck and call 24/7).
  • Despite your expected availability, they do not want to pay you for your time and often complain about your fees. They certainly don’t understand why you charge for phone calls, even though they call you 15 times a day.
  • They think lawyering is easy. For example, they’ll do a ton of “legal research” to prove their point, not understanding the hierarchy of authority or the importance of the subsequent treatment of cases. Then they’ll roll their eyes at you when you try to explain why a 1942 out-of-state case that was overturned in 1985 can’t be used to win their case
  • Any time they are frustrated with you, they accuse you of being in cahoots with opposing counsel.
  • They’ve all “talked to a guy” who “basically had the same case” and that person walked away with a $3 million judgment. Consequently, they won’t settle for a penny less.

 

Sound familiar?

Ugh.

It gives me heartburn just to think about these folks. But enough about them. Let’s talk about what you can do to manage them.

Before representation begins

As you might imagine, people who exhibit the above NCPQs often reveal themselves early in your relationship with them — think about your most concerning initial consultations.

That said, there are a myriad of reasons why we sometimes have to accept clients like this.
With that in mind, there are some key things you can do prior to representation to protect yourself from these individuals.

Research the case history

To be honest with you, this is a lesson I learned the hard way.

I had just started a solo firm and I desperately needed clients. A man found my website, called, and exhibited at least 8 out of 10 of the NCPQ. Still, his case was interesting and he had a summary judgment opposition deadline coming up in 10 days. I took the case and got to work.

It was the biggest mistake of my entire legal career.

Had I taken 20 minutes to research the status of his pending federal court lawsuit, I would have seen that I was (no joke) the fifth lawyer he’d hired to represent him within the first six months of the case.

In other words, he was a serial lawyer-firer.

When I later talked to his prior counsel, I learned none of them had been paid beyond the initial retainer amount. I’ll let you guess how that turned out for me.

Have a rock-solid retainer agreement in place

When it comes to difficult clients, retainer agreements are about a lot more than protecting your right to get paid for services.

Among other things, they’re also about setting expectations, eschewing the idea that you’re guaranteeing a particular outcome, and setting guidelines for withdrawal from representation.

If you haven’t updated your standard retainer agreement lately, try pulling a sample agreement from your State Bar, like this one from California.

Whatever you do, don’t wing it with a difficult client.

During representation

I hate to break it to you, but really, really difficult clients never see the light and start acting like dream clients during the course of representation. You and your firm are going to have to learn to live with them as best you can.

Stress management

Difficult clients are nothing if not blood-pressure-increasers.

Sadly, they don’t care that their personalities are taking a toll on you and your colleagues. They want what they want and they want it now.

Therefore, it’s up to you to form a personal strategy for dealing with the unique stress of serving these folks. Whether you decide to meditate in the morning, take a walk each afternoon, or even seek counseling for your increased stress, just be sure to do something to keep yourself sane during this challenging time.

Protect non-lawyer staff

Even in the best of circumstances, it is important for a law firm to protect and enhance the morale of its employees. After all, happy employees are more loyal, more productive, and more fun to be around.

Nothing can ruin all of your good will with a stellar employer faster than a nightmare client.

Moreover, the failure of a law firm to protect its staff could lead to employer liability in some circumstances.

It is of the utmost importance to make sure you don’t give nightmare clients the opportunity to overwhelm your staff. In fact, you should encourage your staff not only to report abusive behavior to those in charge, but to also take steps to manage their own stress in the same ways the lawyers do.

As long as there are lawyers and lawsuits, there will be difficult clients. Fortunately, by taking a few key steps to protect yourself and your employees from their negativity, you can not only survive your difficult clients but thrive in spite of them.

Author

  • Jennifer Anderson

    Jennifer Anderson practiced business litigation in California from 1999 to 2016. When she’s not writing from her floating cabin on the Columbia River, she can be found hiking or kayaking around the Pacific Northwest.