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The Magazine of Illinois Lawyers

January 2017Volume 105Number 1Page 47

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Practice Management

From the Newsletters - Talking the Talk to Problem Clients

Managing difficult clients is easier when you control expectations and set ground rules.

"Ten steps for successful conversations with difficult clients"
By Ken Stalkfleet
YLD Newsletter - December 2016

"Difficult clients are the bane of a young lawyer's existence," Ken Stalkfleet writes in the most recent YLD Newsletter. (Of every lawyer's existence, his more senior colleagues would surely say.) He assembled a list of tips - 10 "and a bonus," he says - for communicating effectively with high-maintenance and otherwise troublesome clients. Here are some highlights from his article.

Explain what you can and can't control. Clients often assume lawyers have power they really don't have. For example, "[i]f they ask you to speed up a case, you may need to clarify that the judge has a schedule" and you're bound by it, Stalkfleet writes. Also, explain that you can't control the demeanor of your opponent or how the judge will rule.

On the other hand, some things are under your control. "At trial, you can control your presentation of the case and making sure the judge gets as much of your perspective as possible," he writes. "If your client is stressed about how long a case is taking, it may be time for another settlement offer or to tell them to take some time off from thinking about it for a month or two."

Identify the real problem. It might be hard to identify your client's real problem under the anger and invective. For example, a divorce client might bitterly complain about her ex always being late to pick up their child. "On further inquiry, you could discover the problem is that your client needs to get to work precisely by 8 a.m. on Thursdays, and these late pickups are causing problems at work." That specific problem might be easy to fix, Stalkfleet writes.

Sympathize, but do it professionally. Clients want to know you understand their problems. At the same time, "[y]our client needs to see you as being in a position of authority as far as addressing problems, not someone who is likely to be continually upset by those problems," Stalkfleet writes. "Telling a client 'I understand that you are upset because X causes Y problem for you' also gives [him or her] a chance to clarify," he writes.

Put it in writing. This is important for all clients, but especially difficult ones. "Putting communications in writing or in email, even just memorializing what you talked about on the phone, is a good way to make sure the client cannot blame you for later confusion," Stalkfleet writes.