How do you deal with difficult legal clients? 10 hints and tips

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difficult legal clients

Difficult legal clients can become the bane of your life. Let’s be honest, few of us march headlong into confrontational situations with great relish. So, why should you do that when it comes to selecting clients?

Inevitably, during the course of your legal career, you will come across these bêtes noires. Here are a few handy hints and tips for managing that unpleasant occurrence.

Pareto principle.

If you haven’t heard of this idea before, it’s really quite simple and useful. It’s also known as the 80 / 20 rule. In many businesses, 80% of turnover comes from 20% of the client base. It’s similar with difficult clients but in reverse. 80% of your misery will come from 20% of your clients. Understanding the inevitability of this simple fact will assist you to reduce the number.

Be choosy.

It’s not just about avoiding stressful encounters. Disgruntled clients often refuse to pay, bad mouth you and your firm you or even complain to the SRA. These outcomes can be managed in larger firms but for a sole trader or small High Street practice they can be overwhelming. Being choosy is your first line of defence. So, how do you go about this?

1.  Avoid acting for family and friends.

If you take on work from these people, don’t expect them still to be your friends at the end of the process. Legal matters don’t always run smoothly, and, in their eyes, you will be tarred with the brush of a negative outcome. Refer them to a trusted colleague or known associate and stay in your loved ones’ good books.

2. Screen.

Sometimes it may be difficult to justify turning down work – especially when the business environment is unfavourable. Don’t let that influence you. A difficult, angry, non-paying, complaining client is far better darkening the doors of one of your competitors than your own.

You can use the initial phone call or email to help you determine what kind of individual you will be dealing with. People who have left things to the last minute can be a problem in the future.

3. Don’t be the third in line.

During the screening process you will be able to determine if the client has switched lawyers for the particular matter you are dealing with. In business relationships the chemistry can occasionally go wrong. That’s normal. However, if it’s gone wrong more than once before, alarm bells should start ringing. Ask the previous lawyer(s) why the relationship came to an end and make an informed judgement before you accept instruction. If non-payment or other failings have caused the break, move on.

4. Review the file.

There are only two basic reasons why another lawyer would refer a client to you. Either they can’t do it themselves or they don’t want to. Again, in this situation, be choosy. Review the file and meet the client before you decide to take them on.

5. Take a view on motivation.

Difficult legal clients come in all shapes and sizes and with many agendas. Once you’ve found out what prospective clients want, delve deeper and find out why they want it. If the answer to that is out of anger, self-righteousness, revenge or unrealistic expectations, red lights should start flashing.

Understand the beast.

Those five pointers will allow you to avoid Mr or Mrs Angry to some extent. Sooner or later no amount of side-stepping will suffice and the nightmare client will land. When that does happen, you have two ways to go:

6. Understand.

Difficult legal clients become so for all manner of reasons. They may be scared or overwhelmed by the circumstances facing them. They may be daunted by the nature and complexity of the legal process or just plain averse to using a lawyer. Getting to the bottom of what is making them tick is half the battle. Once you understand this, you can plan how you are going to deal with them or plan your escape.

Whatever your plan entails, be sure to fully appraise yourself of your rights and responsibilities to your clients. The SRA handbook is the starting point for this.

7. Inform.

Difficult legal clients unhappy faces.

The main trigger which causes difficult clients is lack of understanding or knowledge. To counter this, you need to educate and inform them. Explain how the legal process for their transaction works – and keep reminding them. Throughout the course of the matter, keep them up to speed on progress. Managing their expectations in this way will strengthen the relationship and avoid it going sour.

Tame the beast.

#6 and #7 both help to take the sting out of a potentially difficult situation. With that done, it’s time to take control.

8. Set clear ground rules.

Provide your clients with a set of rules and procedures and expected levels of input and behaviour:

  • Give clear phone, email and reporting expectations.
  • Explain the billing procedure and how non-compliance with it will affect the work.
  • Give details of when you will and when you will not be available.
  • Set an expected timetable for the transaction.
  • Let the client know what will cause hold-ups or problems.

9. Explain how your charging mechanism works.

Be upfront about how you charge and how other staff who may be working on the matter charge. This will let clients know that it is not just your own time he or she is paying for. It will also help to reduce calls to support staff. Also, make sure your bills, interim or otherwise land when you said they would. There’s no point in putting up with a shed load of grief and then not getting paid for it. Take a look at this article on effective billing.

10. Stick to your guns.

It’s all very well informing clients, setting expectations and managing them. Unless you stick to these principles, they are useless. It may seem draconian, but it will reduce the incidence of difficulties and protect you from their fall-out.

These simple steps won’t completely prevent you from coming across difficult legal clients from time to time. However, they will mitigate the problem and, in extreme circumstances, allow you to cut your losses and end the relationship.

Mike O’Donnell, August 2019.

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