Dealing with a difficult client can result in an ethics complaint or a malpractice claim. So confirm understanding and document everything! But take it a step further. Learn to recognize these types of difficult clients and how to handle them.
• The angry or hostile client. The angry or hostile client came into your office that way. Anger that cannot be expressed, mixed with aggression, creates the hostility just below the surface, expressed in snappish, rude, contrary behavior. And once legal representation has commenced, the anger or hostility may be dialed up several notches. You or your staff may become the recipient of misdirected anger. When a deposition or court date is imminent, this client can create more than a tension headache. Acknowledge your client’s angry feelings and consider suggesting the use of a therapist during the course of the litigation process.
• The vengeful or zealous client. For the vengeful client, cost is not a consideration; it is the principle of the matter. There has been a great wrong. Now you’ve been selected as an instrument in correcting it. This client sees you in a role you’d be wise to refuse. If you have a high sense of idealism, you’re a natural fit and will find it difficult to resist the siren song that could lure you onto the rocks of unethical behavior. This highhanded client wants to revisit the “eye for eye” justice of Hammurabi’s Code. If you feel enmeshed in this client’s crusade, withdraw.
• The overinvolved or obsessed client. This client thinks about the case 24-7. If you ask for notes, he produces a filled-up notebook and expects you to read it. The key is the word “expect.” Establish reasonable expectations. Provide the client with a legal file and hole-punched copies of everything to put into it. If you don’t meet or exceed this client’s expectations, not only will you not be paid, you will be reported to the bar for letting him down.
• The emotionally needy or dependent client. This client may seem emotionally fragile, insecure or unconfident, dependent on others and now upon you. Do not settle into the role of decision maker. Your role is to be advisor about choices available to the client. You may find it personally painful to watch your dependent, emotionally needy client struggle with making a decision. Deal with the pain. Warmly encourage this client to go home and think about it, talk it over with another trusted personal advisor, therapist or minister, get a good night’s sleep and call you in the morning.
• The secretive, dishonest or deceitful client. If your client is secretive, information that you need to formulate the correct advice is being hidden from you. If your client is deceitful or dishonest, you will be told incorrect facts. How can you represent this client adequately? You can’t. Lawyers have run into difficulty when they have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous clients. Terminate. Your professional reputation is more important.
• The depressed or mentally ill client. The depressed client is not merely someone who is sad. A client with clinical depression is a difficult client because she may not be able to engage with the legal process whether or not it involves litigation. Again, you are not there to fix the client, but the problem. Recommend supportive therapy. The mentally ill client is entitled to legal representation but may not have the capacity to understand and make informed decisions. Be careful making this determination. Does this impairment require the appointment of a representative? Your bar or lawyers’ assistance program may have resources for working with impaired clients. Avail yourself of help for dealing with this type of client.
• The unwilling client. This client will not believe your advice because it does not match the advice she came into your office to receive. Clients often come to lawyers to determine the consequences of actions they have already taken or have decided to take. Also, many clients are just unwilling to follow or accept the advice their lawyers give. Put your advice in writing, including the likely outcomes of following as well as rejecting this advice. If they choose not to follow it, at least they do so knowing the consequences. But are they also unwilling to pay the bill for advice they do not want?
Sheila Blackford is an attorney and Practice Management Advisor for the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund. She is a member of Law Practice’s Editorial Board.
Note: These descriptions are based on categories of difficult clients identified by Carole Curtis in a 2003 paper on the subject.