5 tips for dealing with difficult clients

Angry to deceitful, obsessive to abusive: difficult clients can be any of these things. And more.

Sometimes they don’t know that they’re being objectionable, sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t care much either way.

Should we be surprised? After all, nobody particularly visits a lawyer to be entertained. A law firm is not a comedy club. Clients typically visit their legal advisors to deal with life’s less palatable issues: drafting a will (death); getting a divorce (demise of a relationship); or selling a business (end of a lifetime’s work), to name a few.

There, that’s cheered you up.

However, disagreeable clients mean that a lawyer is less likely to get paid and more likely to see a negligence claim. And let’s not forget the potential for complaints to the SRA.

So here are our top five tips on dealing with challenging clients.

1. Avoidance

This might sound painfully obvious, but try to avoid working for a difficult client in the first place. Nowadays, the need of hitting fees targets means that this isn’t always an easy thing to do.

Don’t be afraid of trusting your gut instinct.

If a potential client reveals:

  • “You’ll be the third lot of lawyers that I have used”
  • “My other lawyers were incompetent idiots”
  • “I’m suing my previous lawyers”

then you should think carefully before being instructed by them. Get the second opinion of a colleague. Do a Google search to see if – adopts EastEnders-style accent – they have “any previous”.

If you take a client on in haste, you may find yourself repenting at leisure.

2. Be thoughtful

So you’ve decided to take on the client. They need help; you want to help them (being the thoughtful professional that you are); and – joy of joys – they haven’t requested that the road outside your office be dug up so that a direct line to the complaints handling team be installed.

Even so, remind yourself from time to time that your client may be under stress. You’re used to dealing with crises in various areas of law. Your client probably won’t be. Their livelihood, personal finances or reputation might be at risk.

They may be frightened or confused. Or worse. Don’t make their life any more difficulty than it already is.

3. Be a manager

Manage your client.

Spell out what you are going to do and do it (although give yourself a wee bit of wriggle room if possible: better to under-promise and over-deliver than over-promise and under-deliver).

Tell them what the likely result is going to be.

Remind yourself of your obligations under the SRA Code of Conduct and be “whiter than white”, particularly regarding costs.

Be transparent. Sometimes the answer to a client’s legal query will be “no” (“Can I fire a cannon within 300 yards of a dwelling house?”; “Can I buy Antarctica?”). Then explain how you came to your conclusion.

Finally, tell staff about the client and what your expectations are. Deal promptly with any problems.

4. Obsessive documenting

Document everything: now is the time to do file notes. Worry about the hazard of paper cuts another day.

Confirm things in writing – not just what your client says but the advice that you give.

Consider bringing in another member of the team in important meetings so that they can act as a witness (although, it is probably best not to refer to your colleague as such).

Spell out clearly what the possible outcomes are of the options that you present to the client. Sometimes you may have to get the client to sign a disclaimer stating that you have advised them to do “x”, they have willingly refused to do so and that the consequences of this will be “y” (“y” is never good by the way).

5. Stay calm

You are a professional. Don’t let the client ruin your day or life.

Eat well. Exercise. Put things in perspective. Every lawyer has difficult clients, you’re no different.

In conclusion, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t act: just do so with your eyes open. The client may be difficult but with some tact, common sense and the odd precaution or two you should, all being well, avoid most difficulties.

Do let us know what you think. The comments box is below. In the meantime, why not look at things from the client’s perspective: Check out this video from the SRA.

Further advice on client care letters and handling complaints can also be found on the Law Society website.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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