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Family lawyer: Identifying, managing difficult clients

Representing a difficult client -- whether it’s someone with a sketchy past, behavioral problem or some other negative factor – requires special care. Understanding the client is a must.  Anne Hamer, a family lawyer at Floyd Law Group in Nashville, shared her checklist for how to identify and evaluate such clients during the webinar, “Difficult People: Dealing with Opposing Counsel and Clients.”

In the business for more than two decades, Hamer said she evaluates her clients using eight criteria:

  1. Visual assessment. Are they able to function in society and do they have a level ability to engage in the world?
  2. Medical history. What doctors or physicians are they seeing? What types of drugs are they taking? Have they received psychiatric care or been institutionalized? How much do they drink? How much does their spouse drink? What time of recreational drugs to they use? Do they have a criminal history or DUI?  “If a client tells you they have five drinks a week, it’s usually 10. If they tell you they only smoke pot at a college reunion, they usually smoke a lot more than that,” Hamer said.

    “You want to know these things on the front end and not hear about them from opposing counsel,” Hamer said.  Another red flag is if a client gives you a hard time about completing their intake form or question why you need to know.
  3. Social history.  Ask a client how they met their spouse and what made them fall in love. How long did they date? How long were they engaged? What’s the meanest thing your spouse can say about you? How does your spouse perceive you – as lazy, not willing to work, not willing to help around the house? Ask about their other relationships and dating habits.
  4. Work history. Obtain your client’s resume and confirm that their education matches up with their career path.
  5. Legal history. Is your client involved in lawsuits? Are they litigious? Have they ever been arrested or in trouble with the law? Do they have any DUIs? Do they have any prior divorces? “These types of questions will help you better determine if your client demonstrates any pathological behavior. All clients have their issues, but you want to know if this person is going to be difficult for you to represent,” Hamer said.
  6. Attitude. Observe if they are offended by the questions you ask.
  7. Behavior. Ask if their spouse is an alcoholic. Is she/he verbally or physically abusive? If so, are there police reports to validate these claims? “Listen to their words, but trust their behavior,” she said.  
  8. Current pathology. All clients come into their lawyer’s office in a state of unhappiness whether it’s because they are in shock because they are getting a divorce or because they realize they want one. “Clients are not coming in at their best when meeting with a divorce lawyer. They could be not doing well because something is wrong with them or just not doing well at that particular moment,” Hamer said. Assess whether they are angry at their spouse or just an angry person.

    “If your client can recognize their own flaws, they are going to be someone who can help you to help their case,” Hamer said.

Hamer also advised looking at these personality issues when evaluating your client: 

Victim. Clients often present themselves as victims and see the perpetrator as the one who did everything wrong. “You have to let the client know they cannot successfully win their case if they continue to portray themselves as the victim and not willing to move on, but rather focus on destroying the other spouse,” she said.  

Cheater. Although there are different types of cheaters, Hamer said the “serial cheater” is “more likely to be a liar, sociopathic or even an addict because serial cheaters are playing with reality all the time.”

Personality disorders. “Borderline personality disorder patients have a fear of abandonment, in which all their actions stem from, and unfortunately 75 percent of people diagnosed with this disorder are women,” Hamer said. Thus, “It’s hard to tell if a client who is coming to you because she is getting a divorce is afraid of abandonment or is she the type of person who really has a problem relating to other people?” 

Addicts. “If you have an addict as your client, she or he will lie to you so just be ready for it. You will need to look for verifiable data to believe what they tell you, including how much they make, how much the house is worth or how important they are at work.” Hamer added, “This applies to any form of an addict – sex, drugs or alcohol.”

Hamer advised keeping your client abreast of the law so they understand when the case is not going their way. “You have to ensure your client accepts the reality you are telling them, she said.”

This program was sponsored by the ABA Section of Family Law; Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division; Law Practice Division; and the Center for Professional Development.

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