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3 Ethical Considerations When Dealing With Obnoxious Clients

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

While attorneys have to put up with plenty from opposing counsel, judges, and witnesses, clients can often be the toughest to handle, with some becoming downright obnoxious. But all lawyers owe their clients certain ethical duties, which can make a cantankerous client worse than those telemarketing calls that just won't stop.

You can still be an good lawyer and not a doormat, but you need to keep in mind these three ethical issues:

1. Client Won't Stop Calling

Communication is key in any relationship, and especially for the attorney-client one. Whether you communicate by phone, text, email, or iPad, it's your ethical duty as an attorney to keep your client up to date on his or her case.

But what about a client who will not stop bugging you?

Both ABA Model Rule 1.4 and California Rules of Professional Conduct (CRPC) Rule 3-500 require attorneys to keep their clients informed about case matters which require the client's approval or consent and to respond to the clients' reasonable requests for information and documents.

Comply with your ethical duties, but also firmly remind the client that you are billing him or her for every 1/10 of an hour (rounded up) in which you are fielding the client's questions. If you bill $1,800 an hour, he or she will be paying $180 every time you pick up the phone or open your email. This may dissuade some clingier clients from spamming your inbox.

2. Too Close for Comfort

Does your client call you "the best lawyer in the whole wide world?" Are you worried that your long hours working with the client are going to lead to more than just a professional relationship? Consider this:

  • ABA Model Rule 1.8(j) prohibits lawyers from having any sexual relationship with a client unless the client and attorney were already involved before the attorney-client relationship began.
  • CRPC Rule 3-120 actually permits California lawyers to make er, get close with their clients -- so long as it can be done without compromising your competent representation of that client. Good luck with that one.

An amiable relationship with your client can really help your advocacy, but you need to be able to treat your client professionally. Treating him or her like a date or an opportunity may distract you from protecting the client's actual legal interests.

3. That's It! I Quit!

Sometimes the only way to deal with an obnoxious client is to withdraw from representation.

Both the ABA Model Rules and the CRPC require you to withdraw from representation when doing so would lead to unethical conduct, illegality, or the client's condition (mental or physical) is such that effective representation is unreasonable. Most annoying clients don't fall into this category, leaving the attorney to look for some good clause to be permitted to withdraw.

A well-drafted withdrawal clause in your fee agreement can help (see these sample agreements). By having the client agree at the outset of your attorney-client relationship that you can withdraw when the client refuses your advice or is being uncooperative, you need not worry about searching for a reason to drop an annoying client.

If you're in litigation, you'll likely need to request to withdraw from a judge, and in any case you must prove that withdrawing will not materially affect your client's interests. But by withdrawing from a nightmare client early, you can avoid being stuck in trial with him or her.

Not every client will be your dream case, but managing the difficult ones can be done ethically.

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