How to Handle Difficult Clients in Legal Practice

A lawyer who has been practicing for any length of time at all no doubt has encountered the “difficult” client.
This is not necessarily the client who simply presents a difficult case with complex legal issues, the client who stops paying a lawyer’s bills as it nears bankruptcy or even the client who involves the lawyer in conflict of interest or ethics problems.

Who is a difficult client?

A difficult client is difficult in a human-relations sense. It is the client who regularly says, “I want it tomorrow,” who demands, “Do not put that lawyer on my case,” or who always seeks detailed explanations for every letter a lawyer writes or Application a lawyer wants to file.
The difficult client confronts the lawyer with “Your bill is too high” or “What do you mean I can’t do that deal?” A client who is difficult is the overseas client who insists that the lawyer wake up very early in the morning and make a telephone call to the client at 3 a.m.
Difficult clients, in other words, are the clients who not only put themselves first (from a practice-development perspective, lawyers probably should put clients first, too), but who think only of themselves (which is an unpleasant extreme).

How to Handle Difficult Clients

Lawyers should focus on the issue of dealing with a difficult client at the intake stage of the relationship. They should analyze the risks they may be running by agreeing to represent a difficult client – if the client has had four different lawyers on the same matter over the preceding eight months, the new lawyer may want to refuse to represent the client.
Certain clients may be the kind of people who are more likely to file a malpractice action if the result is not satisfactory than a more reasonable and understanding client would be. At the least, the difficult client may force the lawyer to spend more time than warranted on a matter, some – or a lot – of which the lawyer will be unable to bill.
Of course, it is not easy for lawyers to turn away business, especially when their cash flow is suffering and clients are not exactly knocking down the office door. Fortunately, there are ways for a lawyer who agrees to represent a difficult client to limit the problems.

1. Be Proactive

One of the best ways to handle a difficult client is to anticipate the problems and attempt to deal with them at the beginning of the relationship, for instance, that a lawyer should ask a client what the client’s deadlines are – and then try to beat them. “If the client says, ‘I want it by Monday,’ lawyers should gear themselves up to get it done by Friday.”
If a lawyer has an ongoing relationship with a client and the client then sets an impossible deadline, the lawyer’s prior work should help the client understand that the impossible deadline has to move.

2. Staffing

Dealing with staffing issues upfront can also help avoid the situation of the client trying to dictate which lawyers from a firm should be handling a case or representing the client on a particular transaction. If a client rejects the lawyer’s staffing proposals, the lawyer should ask the client why.
The lawyer may be able to cure a misunderstanding and staff the case as proposed. If necessary, the lawyer might be able to tell the client that the client’s view is unfortunate but that there is someone else at the firm who can handle the matter. If that will not work, the lawyer can refer the client to some other law firm.
It obviously is better for a lawyer to do this ahead of time, before incurring time and expense, than later. In certain cases, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to resign from representation, at least without court approval.
Lawyers should carefully think about staffing issues for a difficult client. Considering whether to put a male lawyer on a matter for a difficult male client, a female lawyer for a difficult female client or an older lawyer for a difficult younger client. This may be a way to engender trust.

3. Billing

A discussion of billing at the intake stage can also help avoid bill problems later. At the beginning of the relationship, a lawyer should tell the client what the lawyer’s fee, or estimated fee, will be. The lawyer also should explain how often the client will be billed and when the lawyer expects those bills to be paid.
On occasion, however, Lawyers moving through a lawsuit or a project will find that they underestimated the legal expenses at point pick up the phone, discuss it with the client and negotiate if necessary.
Lawyers who represent difficult clients, but who have not discussed their bills in advance, will come to the point – perhaps after the assignment is completed – where they want to submit their bills to their clients, a lawyer in this position should call the client, find out whether the client is pleased with the outcome, explain the amount of the bill the lawyer is prepared to send, then ask, “May I send it?” Even in this situation, a lawyer may be able to lead a difficult client to accepting and paying the bill.
If the client rejects the lawyer’s entreaties, the lawyer will learn that fact sooner rather than later and should be able to find an amount to bill that is acceptable to both parties.

4. What if a lawyer takes none of these steps and simply sends a bill, to which the client objects?

The lawyer should not fight with the client, but should speak with him or her and offer to look at the bill again. After doing so, the lawyer can contact the client again and say that it looks fine, but ask what the client thinks is right.
At that point, the lawyer can negotiate the bill or take other appropriate action.

5. ‘Yes If, No But’

There may also be a better way to tell a difficult client, and other clients, too, that they cannot do something that they want to do.
Instead of saying, “No,” a lawyer can use the “yes if; no but” method.

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