Four red flags and seven steps to preserve your practice and maintain your sanity when dealing with an impossibly difficult client.
If you practice family law long enough, you will meet the client from hell. It is unavoidable. They are unreasonable, ungrateful, and they don’t listen. For the ones that are obvious, any attorney is well advised to stay well away and decline representation. It is much easier to say no upfront than it is to say goodbye later.
Two things usually entice us into representing such clients: money and/or their good behavior at the start of their case. Some clients will seem to be appreciative but revert to their baser natures as the case goes on; others simply agree to pay large retainers or “whatever it takes” to achieve the result they desire.
4 Red Flags Indicating You May be Dealing with the Client from Hell
There are a few principles that will help lawyers avoid having an unpleasant experience with clients, and there are things to remember to help avoid turning a client into an adversary. Some of the red flags to look for in the initial interview are as follows:
1. Disagreements with Prior Counsel.
A potential client may have had a bad experience with prior counsel. If you are asked to take over a case from another attorney, be aware of that attorney’s reputation and abilities. If they have a reputation for competence, integrity, etc., think twice before you agree to take over. Clients who have been fired are especially risky; lawyers usually terminate a relationship for good reasons.
2. Fee Disputes with Prior Counsel.
Clients who fire their previous lawyers because they are being “overcharged” are also red flags. If they had a fee dispute with their prior lawyer, they probably will have one with you. Be aware that courts are more reluctant to allow the second lawyer to withdraw simply because they knew a client might prove difficult. By the time a lawyer discovers the true nature of their client, trial may be nigh, and the court might not let them withdraw.
3. Refuses to Take any Responsibility for Their Situation.
Clients who blame everyone (especially their former lawyer) for their troubles may have emotional or mental issues. Narcissists, borderline personality disorders, and clients with other psychoses can be adept at sounding innocent, but people who claim to be victims in all areas of life could be a problem. Life is what happens when you have something else planned but if they blame you for it be prepared for the worst.
4. Makes Baseless Claims.
If the potential client makes wild accusations with no reasonable basis, be on high alert. People who make baseless claims may not be entirely honest, could be overly dramatic, or simply deluded. None of these make good clients.
7 Steps for Dealing with (or Avoiding) the Client from Hell
There are a few ground rules that can help lawyers avoid representing problematic clients. Most are based on common sense; a couple I learned the hard way. If you are not already doing these, I strongly recommend you consider implementing them in your practice.
1. Written Contracts.
Most lawyers have their clients sign a contract that addresses billing, fees, the uncertainty of litigation, etc. Some provisions that are critical for defusing future problems with clients include:
- what happens if a client won’t take your advice,
- the fact that you cannot guarantee a result,
- your policy regarding late- or non-payment of fees, including arbitration,
- waivers to talk to prior attorneys.
If you are taking over for another attorney, you must be allowed to talk to the previous attorney about the client and their case to determine any weaknesses in the case and/or problems with the client. If they refuse to allow you to talk to their former attorney, run the other way.
2. Better Communication = More Rapport.
As with any relationship, the more communication you have with the client, the more rapport you will have. The more rapport you have, the less chance they will hate you. For clients that need hand-holding, recommend that they talk to a therapist (in a compassionate way, of course). Some firms have a designated mental health professional that is trained to deal with balky clients. They are worth their weight in gold.
3. Acknowledge that Your Client is Suffering.
Most domestic relations clients are having a very hard time dealing with life in general, and the adversarial aspects of litigation in particular. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a client is to simply listen to them and nod sympathetically. You must explain to the client at the outset that the legal system does not handle divorces and custody battles expeditiously or predictably. As a family lawyer, I sometimes spent more time teaching clients appropriate parenting techniques post-divorce than discussing legal options. You may consider creating a brochure about the role of the legal system and what it does and does not do. The first thing I often told my clients is a judge can’t make their ex-spouse be the person the client wants them to be.
Don’t take your clients’ insults personally, don’t assume anything about them or their situation, be scrupulously honest, always do your best, and know when to walk away.
4. Learn How to Deal with Bullies.
Some clients are wealthy, powerful, and deeply unpleasant. They love to throw their weight around – especially if their lawyer cannot or will not accede to their demands, which can range from unethical to downright illegal. If such clients represent a large part of your firm’s GNP, that can be a problem. It is important that you put everything you say to them in writing. Summarize your conversations and give them a copy. Highlight the fact that when you are navigating uncharted territory, you can’t predict the outcome with 100% certainty. Research how to respond to bullies, which is what they often are. Get training as a mediator or Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) practitioner. How you respond – verbally and non-verbally – can make a big difference in your client relationships.
5. Establish Realistic Expectations.
Everyone wants to win, of course. You must establish what your client expects and what is reasonable at the outset. For example, if a client demands sole custody when there are no factors that would warrant it, you will have to give them a reality check. Establish a definition of “win” you can both live with. Suggest some achievable goals that would constitute a “win” – even if your client wants a different outcome.
6. Remember That This May Be Their Lowest Point.
Be compassionate. Communicate. Let them know you care about their case and will fight hard for them. Do not tolerate dishonesty from them; the Rules of Ethics are clear on what attorneys have to do in that situation. When a client demands that you make their adversary accept an unfavorable or unconscionable settlement offer, let your client know that you understand how they feel and sympathize with their frustration, but that you have no legal means to control their ex-spouse’s decisions.
7. Grow a Thick Skin.
I have been called all sorts of things and I have been sued by former clients for outcomes beyond my control. That is not fun. It helps to pull back and see the bigger picture: that you are there to assist them in a time of distress and need. Unfortunately, unhappy clients and divorce cases often go hand-in-hand. In the words of Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (Amber-Allen Publishing), “Don’t take anything personally; by taking things personally you set yourself up to suffer for nothing…” and “Nothing other people do is because of you; it is because of themselves.”
Retain your integrity – even if that means losing a client. “Be impeccable with your word: speak with integrity, honesty, and truthfulness,” says Ruiz. “If someone is not treating you with respect, it is a gift if they walk away from you.”
So don’t take your clients’ insults personally, don’t assume anything about them or their situation, be scrupulously honest, always do your best, and know when to walk away.
Hopefully, with these steps, you will be better prepared to deal with those prospective clients from hell who show up and demand your services. And, as always, “Cave quid volunt!”