If you’ve been in practice for more than a few months, there’s no doubt you’ve encountered a difficult client. It comes with the territory, and so as a lawyer, it’s important to learn how to handle difficult situations.
Why difficult clients are common
To understand how to handle difficult clients, you must first understand what sets people off. This means putting yourself in the client’s shoes, which can sometimes be difficult.
Think about a person’s state of mind when they hire a lawyer. In most cases, people don’t hire lawyers when things are going well.
Especially if you handle a specialty like a divorce, personal injury, or estate planning, you might be encountering your clients at the lowest points in their lives.
This is why it’s a good idea to practice empathy. You aren’t going to want to get too emotionally invested with clients, naturally, but some empathy can help keep clients from becoming difficult to handle.
And if you’ve been at this for some time, you know to expect some level of difficulty. So, let’s dig in with some tips for dealing with these difficult clients.
5 tips for dealing with difficult clients
The first step in dealing with difficult clients is to shift your attitude. Don’t think of clients in terms of difficulty. Instead, think about compatibility. If you have compatibility with a client, there’s a good chance you can make it work.
Here are 5 tips for dealing with problem clients.
1. Hone in on your interview skills
Especially when you’re just starting out, it might be tempting to accept all clients who want to work with you. But unfortunately, such acceptance may get you into some tricky situations.
In order to succeed, you must be able to weed out the clients who are incompatible with your work ethic and flow.
Here are a few tips for interviewing clients and avoiding any that may become difficult.
a. Ask about their experience with lawyers
If a person has had bad experiences with lawyers in the past, it could be an indication that they’ll be problematic. So if you hear this, start asking questions and understand that you’re only getting one side of the story.
But through these stories, you’ll hear exactly what that client wanted from the relationship that they weren’t getting. For example, maybe the other lawyer wasn’t communicating with them enough, or maybe they were too passive or too aggressive. Listen intently to these stories, ask questions, and determine whether the client would be happy with your level of service. It takes some level of self-reflection, but if you know that communication was a sticking point for them and you’re not the best at sending timely correspondence, this probably isn’t a good fit.
b. Assess overall compatibility
As a human, you’re going to find that you vibe well with some people and not with others. There’s nothing wrong with this and being able to identify less-than-ideal matches is a great start for avoiding difficult clients. If you find that conversation flows easily and you have a great rapport, this person is more likely to be a compatible client for you. Naturally, that doesn’t mean everything will be rosy, but it’s a great start.
c. Be upfront about your style
This is a time to be very honest with your client about your style. And remember that strengths and weaknesses are largely relative. One client may want a lawyer who is borderline pushy, and another may be put off by it. Regardless of your position on the matter, talk to your client about your style. Let them determine whether it’s a good fit for their needs.
2. Identify your difficult client
Solid interview skills might help you avoid most difficult clients, but it won’t keep you from all difficulties. When you do encounter a situation with a client who seems to be problematic, identify the type of difficult client you’re dealing with. Here are a few types of clients with tips for how to handle them.
a. Indecisive – This client is constantly changing his or her mind and creating more work for you. They may be the sweetest people to deal with, but they’re making your job extremely difficult. If you’re dealing with this type of client, always direct conversations towards an answer and get everything in writing.
b. Impatient – We’ve all encountered the client who needs everything done five minutes ago. If this sounds like one of your clients, be clear about reality versus expectations. It may help to create a visual timeline of how the process works to best manage expectations.
c. Special case – A friend or family member usually refers this type of difficult client. But even if they walk in off the street, the result is the same: They expect special treatment. With all clients, make sure you’re crystal clear about what’s included in your fee and what will trigger an extra charge.
d. Withholder– Some clients will withhold important information until the very last minute, which creates more work for you. The best you can do with these clients is to ask probing questions. If you feel like you’re not getting the full story, trust your gut and press until you get answers.
e. Micromanager – This client may have some knowledge of the legal process, and they want to control how you handle their case. This type of client can be especially difficult, and it’s best to remind him or her of your experience and track record. Be careful about straying from your plan because if things don’t go well, it’s still your reputation on the line.
f. Procrastinator – A procrastinating client will wait until the very last minute to answer your questions and get your information. To make things more difficult, they will expect a response from you within minutes. Again, the answer here is to be clear about the timeline. If you need 48 hours for most responses, let your clients know upfront.
g. Penny pincher – People generally understand that time is money, but this type of client expects freebies at every turn. This client doesn’t ever want to be billed for a five-minute phone call, even though it disrupts your workflow. In this case, continue reminding him or her of your billable hours. If they’re taking your time, remind them of the cost. This way, you can avoid a scuffle later.
3. Choose your words carefully
In some cases, we must admit fault. Not all difficult clients are difficult people, and their attitude may have changed based on something you did or didn’t do. We’re all human and should be able to admit our mistakes and move on.
But when a client feels like they’ve been wronged, they may use that mistake to attack your character or work ethic. This is where you have to tread lightly.
If you forgot to submit something on time or didn’t communicate well enough, own that instance. But if a client makes sweeping statements about your work, correct them. It may sound something like, "You never meet your deadlines," or "You always keep information from me." This may seem innocent enough, but statements like this can get out of control quickly. Own your mistake and make a note of how it is uncharacteristic of you. You can point to your reputation or overall track record if a client challenges you on this.
4. Focus on the outcome
Whenever possible, keep the conversation focused on the desired outcome and the timeline that’s going to get you there. With a difficult client, it’s easy to get sidetracked and shift focus, but you’re going to want to stay as productive as possible. If things have already gone awry, you can end up spending a lot of time dissecting issues that won’t impact the result. It’s a loss for everyone involved.
5. Know when to call it quits
Sometimes, the relationship cannot be repaired, and you’ll have to fire a client. Naturally, you’ll do everything in your power to resolve the relationship before it reaches this point, but it may get there anyway.
Just know that you won’t encounter relationships like this often. It’s best to walk away if you can’t provide the outcome the client wants (even if that outcome seems like an impossibility). So if your client continues making unreasonable demands or seems unhappy no matter how much you try to meet their needs, it may be time to part ways.
In this case, the money will be an obvious consideration. So think about the percentage of your revenue this client is bringing in versus the percentage of time they’re taking. In some cases, it’s an easy call.
If you’re dealing with an especially difficult client, it can feel like an uphill battle. But in truth, most cases can be dealt with by addressing your client’s true (and sometimes hidden) expectations. And in very few cases, you may be forced to sever the relationship. It’s a very personal call and one you won’t have to make often (with any luck).
Do you have experience with difficult clients? What are some of your best tips?