Working with the difficult client

In my practice area of Family Law, dealing with a client that is not difficult can sometimes feel few and far between. However, I have come to realize that there are different types of difficult clients and that most all attorneys deal with these people at one time or another. Implementing the following rules or ways in which to deal with these individuals can oftentimes save you from headaches down the road.

Manage the Client’s Expectations

This is probably the most important item to implement. It is of course important to manage client expectations regardless of the client’s personality type. However, when you are dealing with a difficult personality, this becomes even more crucial. Keep in mind that it is your role, as an attorney, to provide advice and potential solutions to issues the client is facing. It is not your role to tell the client which solution to implement – this is solely their decision.

Managing client expectations should begin at day one, when the client first consults with you. Make sure to get a clear idea of what the client expects to happen with their case and what their wishes are. If you understand this from the beginning, you will be better prepared to advise them regarding what is possible and what may simply be unlikely or impossible in their case.

Many times clients have unrealistic expectations about billing, communications, amount of time their case will take, and the outcome of their case. There are steps you can take to handle each of these situations. First, frequent, detailed billing for clients that may not understand how a retainer works or exactly what they are being billed for can be useful. That way, if there is an issue, it can be addressed when the first bill is sent and hopefully resolved. Second, clients often believe that they can call or email you regularly at no charge. This can be resolved by explaining to the client, at the time you give them the retainer agreement, that they will be charged for emails and telephone calls. Third, clients oftentimes believe their case will be wrapped up rather quickly and are surprised and unhappy when their case appears to be taking longer than they expected. Having an honest conversation up front about how long they can expect their case to last is always helpful. Although an attorney rarely, if ever, knows the precise amount of time a case will take, a general ballpark (ie: “your case will likely last at least one year” or “you should expect that your case will take longer than six months”) of how long the case will take, can help alleviate a misunderstanding. Finally, a client may expect a certain outcome with their case and assume that the attorney will get them everything that they want. Be sure to never guarantee your client any outcome and do your best to explain the possible scenarios and outcomes to the client so that they are not shocked and disappointed in the end.

I asked an attorney colleague how she manages client expectations and she responded: “you have to communicate with them on a regular basis and ensure that you give them a realistic picture of the possible outcomes. Being responsive and transparent is extremely important.” She went on to say that the most important ways to deal with client expectations are “responding quickly and checking in with them to make sure they are doing ok”.

Cover Yourself and be Clear in Communications

Particularly for difficult clients – ones that may not trust you or are unrealistic in their expectations, it is imperative to protect yourself by putting everything in writing (or, as we attorneys like to say, send a CYA letter). The more you provide the client with clear, written communications, the less likely it is that there will be a misunderstanding.

I have found it helpful to document almost every conversation in writing. For instance, if I have a telephone conversation with a client that I find particularly difficult, I will send that client an email following the call with a recap of what we discussed. This way, nothing that was said can be misconstrued. I will also create subfolders in my email system for clients where I save all of our communications. That way, if there is ever an issue, I can easily locate all of the correspondence between myself and that client. Most importantly, I make sure that my written communications include the specific advice I may have given the client so that it is very clear.

Manage the Tone of the Relationship

Sometimes you may find you have a client that is excessively angry and/or disrespectful. Although at the outset it may seem that this would be the most difficult personality type to deal with, there are some ways to keep this type of client under control. First, it is important not to become angry or disrespectful towards the client in reaction to their behavior. Staying calm and clear is always ideal. Second, tell your client directly that their behavior towards you is unacceptable. Although you are working for this client and they are paying you, it does not give them a green light to treat you in a disrespectful manner. Be up front with the client and inform them that you will not tolerate their behavior and, if they continue, the relationship may need to be reevaluated. I have found that in my practice, being honest and direct in addressing this behavior with clients almost always rectifies the situation.

Don’t Take the Client or Fire the Client, if Necessary

This is often a difficult decision for attorneys to make, particularly ones that are just starting out in their practice. However, there are instances where you should consider not taking on a client. When a client comes in or phones the office for a consultation, there are some red flags that every attorney should look for.

One red flag is when a potential client mentions other attorneys. This is not to say that every client that comes into your office that has worked with a prior attorney should immediately be turned away. However, if the client mentions multiple previous attorneys (say 3 or more) this may be a red flag that this client will be exceptionally difficult. This client was likely unhappy with all of their previous attorneys because they were not getting the client everything that the client wanted. As attorneys we know that getting a client every single thing they want is extremely difficult, if not impossible. If a client refuses to accept the big picture and the recommendations from multiple attorneys, you will likely find yourself in the same position as this client’s previous three counsels: fired.

Another red flag is when a potential client begins discussing the possibility of an ARDC suit against a prior attorney. There may be instances where a client’s previous attorney really did act egregiously and breached our rules of professional conduct. However, many times a client will bring this up simply because they are unhappy with the results they were seeing with their case, not because their attorney did anything wrong. Instead of finding yourself embroiled with the ARDC, save yourself the headache and do not take on this client in the first place.

The final red flag I will mention here deals with money. If a potential client comes to you and offers to trade services for representation, asks to pay in installments promising the remaining money later, or asks for a discount, consider not taking on this client in the first place. These clients can be particularly hard to turn down when you are just beginning your practice. However, this will almost certainly turn into a headache later when you will need to withdraw from the case because the client has not or will not pay or, at the very least, require extensive and frequent requests for payment to the client.

All of the above are circumstances where attorneys should potentially consider not taking a client’s case in the first place. What happens when you took on the client but there become problems down the line? In many instances, simple disputes between clients and attorneys may happen but are relatively easy to solve. These can include anything from a dispute over a specific charge on an invoice or issues over the settlement figure in a case. Oftentimes, these disputes are worth solving and firing the client is not necessary.

In some instances, however, it may be necessary to part ways with a particular client. I have found that terminating a relationship with a client is something I consider in two specific circumstances: (1) when the client does not trust anything I say; or (2) when the client has extremely unreasonable expectations regardless of my advice. While the step of terminating a relationship should never be taken lightly, if you find yourself unable to move forward with a client because they will not accept your advice and expertise, it may be necessary to end the relationship.


Stephanie E. Greenberg is a partner at Greenberg & Sinkovits, LLC in Chicago, Illinois. She practices in the area of Family Law representing individuals going through divorce providing customized solutions to help her clients achieve peace of mind and move forward with their lives.

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February 2017Volume 38Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)