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Four Tips for Managing Difficult Client Conversations

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

Just spent an hour explaining to a client why you do, in fact, have to charge for your services? Did your client forcefully accuse you of "not being on their side" because you insist on telling the truth? Did you maintain professionalism while a client hurled an insult or two derived straight from a lawyer joke?

Problem clients can be a real burden — both on a law practice and on a lawyer's psyche. We are all trained on seeing two sides to every issue, but sometimes we just don't see eye-to-eye with the client. Providing professional legal services when personality differences arise is hard to do.

Following the steps below can help. These tips are easier said than done, of course, but approaching difficult clients strategically may minimize the time, frustration, and expense they cost you.

Let Them Vent. Then Acknowledge Their Concerns.

People want to be heard, and if they are heard — and responded to with politeness and empathy — anger will sometimes dissipate. Conversely, if they feel you are not interested in their opinion or talking past them, frustration mounts. Acknowledging their emotions and that they are being heard is often enough to get the conversation moving in a positive direction.

That doesn't mean you have to capitulate to unreasonable demands or take insult after insult. But if you first acknowledge what they are feeling and then explain how you have or will account for those feelings in your work for them, they can at least understand that you are on the same side.

Set and Manage Expectations

While a good intake process can help minimize difficult clients, setting expectations at the outset is still essential. It is when the unexpected occurs that emotions tend to get the better of us. If a client doesn't know what's coming, you can become a target of that fear and uncertainty.

Similarly, it is important to know your own boundaries. You certainly don't have to put up with abuse, discrimination, or other unacceptable behavior. If a client can't abide by your boundaries or the way you practice, they can find someone else from the start.

If clients know what to expect from you, and what you expect from them, it is much harder to maintain anger when something unpleasant happens in their case.

Don't Internalize

Some clients may be angry regardless of what you do. Clients may see us as part of a system that doesn't have their best interests in mind. They may have stereotypical notions of divorce lawyers or how criminal defense attorneys operate. We don't need to take it personally when these clients view us with distrust.

Additionally, a person's first interaction with a lawyer may be during one of the most difficult times in their life. They may not be at their best. Understanding this and letting it go can help. Allowing a client to trip us up or push our buttons only increases the angst on both sides.

Instead, focus on how you can best represent the client. You can vent after they are gone.

Document Frequently and Go by the Book

While you can't spend your whole life dealing with a problem client (some expect you to) you can still make sure you are doing everything by the book. Keep the client informed. Help them understand what's going on by explaining everything as simply as possible. Set timelines, including when to expect communications from you and the next steps in the process. Don't trust that they will remember anything you've told them; document as much as possible.

Managing difficult clients is a part of every business, and it's always one of the most unpleasant. But most lawyers don't have the option of turning away all but the best clients. When a difficult client comes calling, it's best to be prepared.

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