Dealing with difficult clients

Shawn Healy
BridgeTower Media Newswires

I have heard several lawyers break the ice with an audience of their peers by joking that they love their jobs — except for their clients.

This joke often elicits a quick laugh because almost every lawyer can identify with the stress involved in dealing with difficult clients. Depending on the practice area, what makes clients difficult might involve unrealistic expectations of oversized financial settlements or abusive treatment directed at the lawyer.

Clients may try to push boundaries, calling at all hours and demanding immediate call backs, or fail to pay their legal fees. They may also engage in less direct and malicious forms of difficult behavior, such as wanting their lawyer to be a therapist, a career coach or a best friend.

There are several ways to reduce the likelihood of taking on difficult clients. If you can choose your clients, as opposed to being assigned cases, developing clear client-selection procedures is well worth the effort. Here are some suggestions:

1. Choose clients based on a set of predetermined criteria, such as whether their legal matter is clearly defined and whether you have expertise in that area of law. The client should also be willing and able to pay your fees, have realistic expectations, and be committed to working closely with you and taking your legal advice.

2. Recognize warning signs of a potentially difficult client: that they have gone through numerous lawyers before hiring you, that they say that you are the only one who can help, that they show no willingness or ability to pay your fees, that they want to hire you despite your lack of expertise in the area of law involved, that they demonstrate poor boundaries or tell you how you should handle the legal matter.

3. Avoid accepting clients based on fear, i.e., “I need the money and fear losing my office space, so I will ignore these warning signs and take the client.” Poor client selection will cost you more in time, money and peace of mind than you will ever make from that client paying your fees.

When you can’t choose

In many cases, however, someone else in the firm or organization selects the clients, and they are then assigned based on area of law or current caseloads. When the decision to select clients is outside your control, it is imperative to practice effective ways of responding to difficult clients.

The key here is to distinguish what you can actually control and then not try to control the things beyond your control. That is always a losing battle.

Clients’ unrealistic expectations: Start early in your working relationship with the client. Ask the client what his expectations are from the beginning. Evaluate whether those expectations are realistic.

Clearly outline the reasonable expectations to have concerning the case, you as their lawyer, and office procedures, such as how long it will typically take to hear back from you, when you are and are not available, what your email policy is, what you expect from the client, etc.

Clients pushing boundaries: From the start of your representation, establish and maintain good boundaries with your client. These are often related to the expectations set at the beginning, but boundaries require you to maintain them.

For example, if you have set the boundary that you return calls only during the work week and your client calls you repeatedly on the weekend and demands a call back, it is your responsibility to maintain the boundary you set.

This can be difficult to do because maintaining the boundary (calling back on Monday) can intensify the pressure the client is exerting in the short run (i.e., they get more upset). Reducing that pressure in the short run by breaking your boundary only creates an expectation that you will do so again in the future.

If you have broken a helpful boundary or failed to ever establish one, start now. Tell the client about the new boundary, and don’t break it no matter how much pressure the client applies.

Rest assured that the client will apply pressure to see if the boundary is real. We all do this with new boundaries. It’s not necessarily manipulative; it’s human nature.

Clients unaware of their mental-health issues: Some clients are unaware that their mental-health issues are affecting their interactions with others. Whether it’s paranoia, a personality disorder, lack of social skills, or lack of insight, some clients reject the recommendation to get mental-health treatment because it sounds like they are being accused of being the source of the problem instead of the legal issue at hand.

I have often encouraged lawyers to suggest mental-health therapy as a way to manage the stress that most people would readily acknowledge is present while legal matters are pending.

Clients who try to make it personal: There are some clients who, due to the stress they are under, lash out at their lawyer with a personal attack. Some clients may yell, question their attorney’s competence, or demand to speak with a managing attorney.

Don’t take it personally. Typically, these behaviors are a sign of the client’s unaddressed mental-health needs, or perhaps these behaviors represent techniques that the client has used in the past, in other contexts, which have resulted in the client getting what he wanted. Human beings often repeat things that have gotten them what they want, particularly when it has worked during times of intense stress.

One of the most important things to do is to be clear and consistent. You will not be able to control how your difficult client responds to you, but you can control how you respond to the difficult client.

It is helpful to recognize your insecurities and separate them from your clients’ behaviors. If you feel inexperienced because you are new to being a lawyer, it can seem particularly challenging to handle a difficult client’s insinuation that you don’t know what you are doing. In reality, the client would probably tell the most experienced lawyer the same thing (because it is often not about the lawyer but about the client).

Most importantly, fight the temptation to respond in kind. It is human nature to respond in a self-protective manner (defensively or offensively) to a perceived attack. Instead of relying on human nature, decide to respond in a calm and professional manner to set the tone and be an example of how to interact.

You can’t control how the client responds, but to borrow a quote from motivational speaker Tony Gaskins, “You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.”


Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts. He also writes and presents on a variety of topics germane to the practice of law. He can be contacted at