Dealing with difficult clients—five tips to defusing the situation

You can’t always please all of your clients. As a legal professional you accept that, due to the nature of your job, you may end up being a metaphorical punching bag, shoulder to cry on or legal agony aunt. Let’s be frank, clients aren’t visiting you for the fun things in life. Often they will be requiring your help with issues such as will drafting, getting a divorce or selling a business. However difficult clients may be, managing the relationship can be vital! Disagreeable clients may lead to not being paid and a negligence claim, or even potential referrals to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). To help you keep your cool and overcome potential challenges with your clients, we’ve outlined our five top tips.

1. Avoidance

This one may appear obvious, but by avoiding dealing with difficult clients from the beginning you can easily avoid any future discrepancies. Although you may be looking to hit fee targets, do not be afraid to turn down a client if they reveal things such as:

  • ‘You’ll be the third set of lawyers that I have used’
  • ‘My other lawyers were incompetent idiots’
  • ‘I’m suing my previous lawyer’

In these instances, you may want to get a second opinion from a colleague or do a Google search to see if there’s any previous issues.

2. Be thoughtful

If you can’t follow step one, one of the main things to remember when managing difficult clients is to be thoughtful. They may be pushing your buttons with constant complaints and questions, however showing a little compassion can go a long way. Remember, these individuals may be under a lot of stress, and unlike yourself, who is used to dealing with legal crisis, your clients aren’t. They may have a lot at risk, their livelihood, personal finances or reputation, causing them to be agitated, angry, worried, confused or frightened. Understanding this is key to having a harmonious relationship.

3. Manage your clients

By taking a manager role you can clearly outline what you are going to do, the likelihood of the outcome and the room you need to execute your strategy.

Consult the SRA Code of Conduct to remind yourself of your obligations and ensure you are extremely clear—especially when it comes to outlining costs.

Ensuring you are completely transparent is vital. Saying ‘no’ to a legal query is often the right answer—but remember, to keep your clients onside always outline how you have come to your conclusion.

4. Be organised

Always ensure everything is thoroughly documented. File your notes meticulously. Even if it feels old-school, confirming things in writing can be your best ally—always include the advice you give as well as what your clients have said.

Consider bringing another member of the team in on 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 the possible outcomes 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” but that they have willingly refused to do so and that the consequences of this will be “Y” (“Y” is rarely good by the way).

5. Stay calm

You’re a professional, and at the end of the day clients need your help. Every lawyer has difficult clients to deal with and you’re no different. Act with your eyes open, the client may be problematic but with some patience and understanding you should be able to reach a harmonious conclusion.

In the meantime, why not look at things from the client’s perspective: Check out this video from the SRA.

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