The Impossible Client: Tips for Managing Challenging Legal Clients

— By Hilary Neiman

Every business is going to have its share of difficult clients and customers. The Pareto Principle states that 80 percent of your time and resources are going to be devoted to 20 percent of your clients. Those clients are generally going to be high maintenance. For lawyers, this can not only be challenging, it can cost a lot of money.

Depending on the type of law you practice, you may be limited in your actions to cut ties with these difficult and challenging clients. For example, if you’re a defense attorney, a judge might not allow you to discontinue representation just because your client is being unreasonable, dishonest, or downright hostile.

For many other lawyers, it can be tempting to want to hang onto difficult clients, especially when they have the financial resources to make it worth your while. There are steps you can take to help you cope with those needy, demanding, or impossible clients.

1. Set specific time limits for each client.

Your phone could be ringing off the hook from some clients constantly wanting to talk about their case or who have a new question about it. When I practiced law, I often had clients who not only wanted to talk about their case, but would also want to talk about their personal lives as well. Although I cared about my clients and their livelihoods, these calls started to take up so much time that hours of my day were being devoted to clients’ non legal issues.

What I should have done (but did not) was to tell each client in writing that fees include a set number of minutes or hours each week to discuss their case.

2. Charge per call or contact.

Some clients may have deep checking accounts and might not be concerned with how much they pay for your services, especially if you achieve results. Charging for each call or meeting can deter the clients who call repeatedly seeking answers to inane questions.

For the clients who aren’t concerned about the cost, you will still be earning money when you previously felt as though you kept wasting time trying to coddle them.

3. Explain to your difficult client that he/she is making it challenging for you to represent them properly.

The more times a client contacts you about a problem, question, or other issue, the less time you’ll have to work on his or her case. Being focused is tantamount to being successful in litigation, contract negotiations, and more.

Explain the problems that your client is causing. He or she may not be aware of it. They may become belligerent and threaten to find another lawyer. Hold firm as this threat is most commonly just a bluff.

4. Know when it’s time to cut ties.

As noted, the Pareto Principle highlights how much time you’ll spend on a minority of your difficult clients. The more time you spend with them, the less time you’re devoting to the other 80 percent of your clients who are paying the lion’s share of your bills.

Be willing to withdraw representation. Even high powered, wealthy clients might not be worth the endless interruptions, calls, and threats you face.

As a lawyer, you’ll deal with a wide range of clients. Developing some strategies to handle difficult ones will help you build a stronger practice and provide you the time you need to excel within the legal profession.

Hilary Neiman is the author of Things Fall Apart and can be contacted on her website:

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