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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

4 Types of Challenging Clients

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I could launch into a tirade here about clients who are genuine nightmares. You know, the ones who scream abuse, lie about advice they’ve received, blame you for everything that goes wrong and generally aren’t very pleasant to be around.

But, truthfully those kinds of client’s aren’t that common.

So I wanted to deal with some more likely candidates that will challenge your ability to serve them to the level that you probably want to.


I have no problem with clients who want to be well informed about their file and the process or law that goes with their matter. That’s how I’d be if the situation was reversed.

Here’s how it goes:

  1. Client tries to handle own matter for as long as possible to save money – not because they don’t have it, but because they feel that they’re fine to do most of it themselves
  2. Client hands matter to you at the last minute, having done a bunch of stuff
  3. You ask questions like:
    1. did you terminate the contract?
    2. so, you’ve already made an application for this and lost?
    3. did you comply with [X]?
    4. why did you fail to answer [Z]?
    5. why did you admit those allegations?
  4. Them: I dunno, I’m not a lawyer – just fix it, OK?
  5. You: Firstly, some things actually can’t be fixed. Secondly, you’ve just cost yourself about $20k in unnecessary legal fees by making avoidable mistakes.

Often this problem comes back to an attitude about lawyers: that what we do is actually fairly easy, anybody could do it provided they spend enough time on Google, and we can’t possibly be worth the money we charge.

It’s pretty rare that all of those things are right at the same time.

Of course we don’t want to lambast clients who have tried to do their own thing and failed, because that’s not very nice.  The challenge is in explaining what needs to be done and why, without sounding like a jerk in the process. Also, if you can manage it, then some suggestions about how the mistakes could be avoided in the future can often be helpful.

“What If We” Option Explorers

[clickToTweet tweet=”a client being difficult in some way doesn’t abrogate your moral or legal obligations to them” quote=”a client being difficult in some way doesn’t abrogate your moral or legal obligations to them”]

This one is always fun:

  1. Them: “So I spent some time Googling stuff, and could we possibly run [complex legal argument X?]”
  2. Me: “Um – probably not because of A, B or C.”
  3. Them: “I really think we should consider it – it looks like a killer argument for me.”
  4. Me: “OK I’ll think about it and let you know”
  5. Them: “Why is this bill so much?”

Of course this isn’t usually a once off. It’s every day.

We say “we recommend you do X”. They say “could you please consider doing A, B or C as other options”?

We respond: “we’ve thought about it, and X is still sounding pretty good – here’s our bill for thinking about A, B and C”.

Sure – clients are absolutely entitled to run ideas past us, and we shouldn’t consider ourselves to be the bastion of all knowledge and good ideas.

But your job here is to manage the inevitable costs that are going to wrack up very quickly because you’re doing 4 times more work, and also to start to manage your client towards having a more trusting relationship with you.

Don’t just brush your client’s ideas or suggestions to one side: consider them, give them some respect, and you’ll be the better for it. After all, sometimes your client might actually have a better idea than you, and since it’s their money and their life/business, they have far more skin in the game than you do.

Clients Who Don’t Read what you Send Them

This is painful.

Even with excellent legal drafting, succinct language and golden letters of advice: some clients just don’t read anything you send them. As a result, your careful recommendations, warnings, concerns and risk analysis are completely wasted.

Of course, these same clients don’t always remember what they’re told in conference either, so simply discussing it with them isn’t always the answer (but might help).

Your job here isn’t just to say “oh well – we sent them the advice and it’s their problem now”. That’s hardly doing the right thing by your client, is it? That kind of attitude simply demonstrates that you’re more interested in your own butt covering than you are in actually helping your client with their issues.

Which is a good place for a reminder: a client being difficult in some way doesn’t abrogate your moral or legal obligations to them.

So your job here is to find a way to communicate with them using a method that they will consume, in language they will understand, and in a way that ensures you’ve done your job.

Because if you can’t, it’s dangerous territory.

If in doubt – ask!  “Hello Client – you’ve mentioned that you don’t read our stuff, is there a better way we could be getting our thoughts to you? Please bear in mind that if you can’t receive our advice at all, we can’t do our job properly for you – so it’s important we figure something out that works for everybody.”

Where Everything is Urgent… Except it Isn’t

“Hi Mary – I’ve just signed a heads of agreement to by a $24m high rise apartment building. It’s imperative I get the contract signed in the next 2 hours. Could you bang something up for me?”

These are the kinds of instructions you might need to say no to. I appreciate you don’t want to say no – but you might have to.

There are two common scenarios:

  1. the client who consistently asks for things to be done “urgently” that aren’t actually urgent;
  2. the client who brings urgent work to you out of some misguided belief that the less time they give you the better/cheaper it will be.

Both of these aren’t good, but they head in different directions.

The first is a client management issue. Let’s face it – some people are just demanding, and there’s very little you can do about it. Often, however, if you enquire why the advice/letter/review is urgent, they actually can’t give you an answer. Of course you’ll deliver the work as soon as you can, but a simple discussion with your client can extend the initial timeframe they requested. In the process you’ll avoid your office going crazy and the potential for the job to be done poorly. Of course, they might insist it get done in record time anyway, at which point you’ve got a choice: say yes, or say no. It’s up to you to weigh the value of the client against their attitude to you and the impact on your staff, your profits and your insurance policy.

The second category is a trust issue. If your client is doing this it’s because they don’t really trust you to do the best job you can in a cost effective manner. Perhaps it’s your pricing structure, perhaps it’s because they simply don’t understand the value of what you do or the process behind it, or perhaps they’ve had bad experiences in the past. A classic example here is contract reviews – leases, building contracts and the like.

Clients often want these done in crazy short timeframes, apparently failing to appreciate that to do it properly we actually need to READ the documents (often something they haven’t actually done). You might be able to address this kind of instruction with a simple explanation about the process involved in doing the job for them, or by clarifying precisely what they want. Sometimes what you think you’re being asked to do and what your client expects you to do aren’t the same, so a little clarity might allow everyone to be happy. And, again, once you’ve had that discussion you have a choice: say yes, or say no.

A Big Consideration

People are people, and clients are clients. It’s easy (although not advisable) for lawyers to slip into a habit of complaining about their own clients, but at the end of the day you’ve only got yourself to blame.

If you have a client who is a constant thorn in your side, then maybe the best option is for you to refuse to accept their instructions going forward, and let them find a lawyer better equipped to deal with their particular personality.

I appreciate that sending a client elsewhere isn’t always a call that younger lawyers can made, and so sometimes you’ve gotta roll with the punches a bit here.

But since you might be headed to your own practice one day, consider this: do the positives really outweigh the negatives?

Happy Lawyering!

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