January 25, 2017 article

How to Approach That Difficult Client as a Newer Attorney

By Conor Desmond

It's 5:30 on a Friday evening. You are packing up your briefcase and getting ready to head home. Suddenly, your phone rings. You look up and see it is "that" client on the caller ID. The client who makes unreasonable demands, calls you 10 times a day, demands daily updates, and requires every little detail to be explained immediately and concisely. Also, the client insists that you cannot bill for these interactions, takes offense at the slightest provocation, and is a "good friend" of one of your firm's partners.

Sounds like a fun start to the weekend!

All lawyers will encounter clients like this in their career, regardless of their specialty. The client may give you headaches, but the client is still a paying client who has retained you to help with a legal problem. This is a challenge for many attorneys, especially for younger attorneys who may have little experience in client interactions and sometimes may not have been involved in the initial conversation that led to the attorney being hired. Finding a workable solution to these issues will not only make you a better attorney but will also make your practice more enjoyable and functional. Here are 10 tips on how to approach difficult client situations.

  1. Remain Calm, Clear, and Professional
    Throughout the entire life of the case, remember that you are a professional attorney who represents and advises individuals and companies in legal proceedings. Keeping calm and speaking in a slow, rational manner will always soothe a heated scenario and will let you think clearly. Getting angry, anxious, or agitated will help nothing.

    A colleague of mine last year had difficulty keeping his temper under control when speaking to a particular client. Whenever this client called or emailed, he would loudly complain, roll his eyes, and ignore the calls until he was forced to deal with the client. In the end, the client was annoyed that it was so hard to contact the attorney, and at times the conversations would devolve into near-shouting matches because of the animosity on both sides of the call.

    Getting angry or annoyed at a client could escalate the situation. No one wants to get into a shouting match with one's lawyer, and some clients may respond aggressively to such a situation. If you get tangled up with a client, take a deep breath and think of the relationship from the client's perspective. Focus on your goals in representing the client and work with the client to get back on track.
  2. Define the Relationship and Manage Expectations Right at the Start
    Before you ever find yourself in a shouting match with the client, you could save yourself some serious trouble by defining your working relationship. Beyond the retention by the client and the fee agreement, it is important for both the client and lawyer to understand each other's roles, expectations, and goals for the representation.

    It is critically important for a lawyer to manage the expectations of the expected services, costs, time, and results. Your client could hear you say that his or her case is very complicated or simple, but what does that translate to in cost and time? Advise your client about the potential fees and costs and try to lay out a general timeline of how the representation will progress. Further, discuss the best methods of communications with your client and how often you should discuss the case. Many attorneys apply a general rule that at the latest, they will try to follow up on all calls and emails within 24 hours of receipt.

    Your client will understand that unexpected events or changes may alter these timelines and costs, but advising the client of these changes and managing the client's expectations could be the difference between a friendly phone call and a malpractice claim.
  3. Keep Your Client Updated
    As part of managing these expectations, it is critically important to keep your client updated! Your client has retained you to perform a legal service and will expect a certain result. As part of that representation, most clients will expect regular updates on their case and could become very upset when they do not hear from you but somehow are still receiving bills.
  4. Answer That Phone/Email/Letter/Text/Fax!
    In that same light, one of the worst things you can do with a difficult client is ignore the client's calls. Putting aside the rudeness of it, this will only agitate both you and your client. Your client may call you constantly and get angry at you for ignoring the calls. Further, the client may be contacting you with an important update regarding the case you may not know of and may need to know immediately.

    Recently, I was representing a client in court regarding a building code violation. In this particular situation, the client was accused of improperly obtaining a building permit and had installed a fence that did not comply with the city's code. I was scheduled to appear at a hearing in the afternoon, and I had not returned a call from my client from the day before due to preparations for trial. Thankfully, I connected with the client and learned that a city inspector had visited the property and had cleared most of the violations. However, the inspector found two new violations. Thanks to that phone call, we adjusted our legal strategy and successfully resolved the case that day.

    By simply returning that call quickly, I avoided costing the client additional fees, resolved the case quickly, and saved myself from being unprepared in court!
  5. Busy? Schedule a Follow-Up Appointment with the Client
    Clients will appreciate and respect the fact that you are busy because it shows you are a busy and successful attorney. But remember that your client's time is also valuable. If you simply cannot speak to your client when he or she calls, set a time with the client to hold a conference call or to write a letter to the client at a specific time. This not only demonstrates that you value the case; it also will force you to focus your energy on maximizing the result of that meeting or call with the client.
  6. And Stick to It!
    A great way to damage your relationship with your client is to schedule a call or a meeting and then ignore it. Things happen, particularly in small and solo practices, that may force a rescheduling of the meeting. Inform your client when you know of the conflict and try to avoid making a habit out of shifting your schedule around.

    As a practice pointer, this is a great reason to stay on the same page as your staff. Make sure that you keep a schedule and ensure that your staff knows of your availability. Do not tell your staff everything, but you want to make sure your staff knows when you will be in the office or in court and out of pocket. Keeping up with your staff will minimize missed meetings and maximize efficient scheduling to keep your practice growing and successful.
  7. Use Your Bill as Correspondence
    Early in my career, I realized that clients scrutinize their bill a lot more than I could have ever imagined. Rather than fight that scrutiny, a wise lawyer should use that scrutiny to his or her advantage. Describe everything you did on a case in the bill, and, if appropriate, use the bill to update your client on key events and developments. Not only will this update your client regularly, it will also describe changes in the timeline of the representation and will guide your future correspondence with the client.

    There are countless instances where a client calls inquiring about a specific item on a bill. It may be a simple misunderstanding, or maybe the client wants to discuss why you took a course of action in a matter. Discussing these issues could lead to a more developed legal strategy and better communications with your client.
  8. Document Everything
    Beyond being a prudent practice, when dealing with an aggressive or high-scrutiny client, it is wise to document all conversations, phone calls, and in-person meetings with the client. Not only will this help you remember everything done and said, this will also serve as evidence you could use in defense in a potential malpractice or contract dispute.

    In addition, keeping a detailed record of the case will help you remember what you did or said to the client. This is important because you can refer to your notes and work to resolve any disputes quickly before they boil over.
  9. Consult a Colleague or a Senior Attorney
    At a certain point, it is acceptable to talk to a colleague or a mentor about how to handle a client dispute that is quickly spiraling out of control. Every lawyer started where you are and can relate to your situation. Simply talking through the dispute with another colleague could also result in discovering a new course of action or may simply bring some calm to the situation.

    While solo practitioners may not have this luxury, smaller firms could have multiple experienced attorneys or partners available for these consults. It is always acceptable for a younger attorney to consult an experienced practitioner on how to resolve a particular issue with a client. Not only will the more experienced partner likely have seen this situation before, the partner may have a personal relationship with the client and may advise on managing the relationship.

    Do not worry—the partner will likely always be open to discussing client relationship issues because they are the backbone of the firm. But always remember that the partner has limited time and cannot help you resolve all disputes with a particular client.
  10. Refer the Client to Another Attorney
    "A wise lawyer once said that no lawyer ever looked back on the day of their retirement and wished they hadn't fired that one client who looked like they would be trouble." Todd Scott, "Tough Clients, Tough Issues," Law Trends & News, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter 2010).

    The end. Maybe it's time to sever your relationship with your client. It is never a pleasant conversation, but there comes a time when disputes, personality clashes, and other side matters have tarnished the legal representation the parties set out to create. Usually, these issues are not irreconcilable, but sometimes ending the representation may be the best solution.

    During our career as attorneys, most of our cases will not be quick and simple. If the cases were simple, the client would not be hiring us. I hope these tips will serve as a great framework to work with your clients. If there are other techniques you have found successful in your practice area, always apply those principles that work best for you. I hope you navigate handling difficult clients quickly and in a way that does not damage your case, relationship, or future business prospects.

Keywords: litigation, solo practitioners, small firms, client relationships, legal representation, mentor

Conor Desmond is a real estate attorney in Chicago, Illinois.

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