How to Treat Bad Clients

When you saw this post title, how did you react? Was your first thought: “Kick ’em to the curb” or “I wonder where this is going?” If it was the former, don’t feel bad – it’s my knee-jerk reaction too.

When we hear the words “bad client,” we instinctively cringe. It conjures up past experiences we would rather not relive. Frankly, nothing could be more unpleasant. So what should we do?

Remedies for bad clients

Want to weed out or eliminate bad clients? Nothing beats:

  1. Screening at intake;
  2. Controlling expectations; and
  3. Knowing when to say no.

Trouble is, most of us know these lessons.  So …

What if a bad client squeezes by?

If there is an irremediable breakdown in the lawyer-client relationship and withdrawal is viable, do it. At this stage, it isn’t going to get better. Yet, some lawyers refuse to do so.

Why would anyone hold on to a client who belittled and berated them? Denied that telephone conversations or email exchanges occurred? Refused to produce materials requested in discovery? Insisted the lawyer use unethical or illegal tactics? (All actual events that have happened to lawyers I know.)

Money is generally the explanation. The lawyer can’t afford to forego the fee (or jeopardize her job). There are other reasons too, like fear and intimidation.

I hope you never experience any of this. If you do, I hope you are strong enough to get out. If you want to talk it over with someone, consider calling one of the confidential attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP).

Is there another approach?

I was motivated to revisit this topic by blogger Celia Elwell. In a recent post, she took on lawyers and legal staff who retaliate against ill-tempered clients by putting the client’s work at the bottom of the stack. Since I’ve witnessed this too, I wanted to share this point made by Ms. Elwell:

Most people, as a rule, do not call an attorney’s office because they are having a good day. Before they became our clients, they realized they had a problem, tried to deal with it, were unsuccessful, stressed, and lost sleep. In short, we are not seeing them at their best.

Take good notes when your clients vent, rant, or repeat themselves. Because they are upset, they may be mistaken or confused. Let the client know that you are listening to them. Interrupt only when you need them to repeat something to make sure you get it right. Document the clients’ concerns, and tell your attorney they called and why.

While her remarks are directed toward staff, they are good reminders for us all.

If you didn’t spot it, notice I suggested above that withdrawal made sense if (a) it was viable and (b) there was an irremediable breakdown in the lawyer-client relationship.

What if you aren’t there yet? This is when Ms. Elwell’s advice comes in handy.

Do not under any circumstances intentionally retaliate by putting the client’s work at the bottom of the stack. At the least, it is unprofessional. It will also likely result in a bar complaint and/or legal malpractice claim. Instead, take the high ground:

  • Try to diagnose what went wrong. Is the client mad at you or someone else? Is the client mistaken or confused? Is this about money? How stressed is the client? Consider scheduling an in-person meeting to air out client concerns.
  • Go out of your way to be courteous and considerate. Instruct staff to do the same.
  • Do high quality work in a timely manner.

It’s easy to be resentful and decide that we’re going to give what we get. But if you go out of your way to appease the upset client, you remove all rational grounds for disputes, complaints, and claims. It’s better to remain professional, even if the “bad” client never appreciates it.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

Postscript

For more tips on improving client relationships, check out this CLE:
7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships.

 

How to Say No to Clients

 

Did you answer “yes” to one or more of these questions?  You are in good company!

As we discussed in 7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships, lawyers often feel pressured to practice “door law.”  The source of the pressure may be economic:  I don’t really have a choice because I need the money.  Or it can be emotional: Family, friends, or former clients are depending on me.

Either way, saying no can be incredibly difficult, so here is some sage advice that first appeared in In Sight.  These tips apply no matter who is doing the asking: clients, friends, family, or neighbors.

Five steps to saying “no”

  • Be respectful.  Listen to the asker and don’t interrupt. Respect the request, then respect your right to decline the request.
  • Keep it simple.  You have the right to say “no.”  Elaborate justifications aren’t necessary [and may lead to backsliding, since many of us say “yes” to avoid feeling guilty].
  • Assign responsibility elsewhere:  “That sounds very nice; unfortunately, my
    calendar is booked solid.” Now it’s your calendar’s fault. Stand firm. Avoid engaging in discussion or negotiation.
  • Refer to others who might fill the opening well.
  • Say yes when there is a good reason to do so, it will benefit you, or the cause is one you believe in.  [Life is too short to take on a case or client you find repugnant.]

I encourage you to read the full article here.

Still need persuading? Time for tough love

You are not the only lawyer who can help your clients.
If money is an issue, there are other lawyers who participate in the OSB modest means program, offer sliding fee services, or take pro bono referrals.  If you continually give your time away to nonpaying clients, your practice will decline and you may need to close your doors.  If you close your practice, you aren’t available to help anyone.

If the case can’t be won, are you doing a service or a disservice by taking it?
Once a lawyer commits to a case, many clients assume the case CAN BE WON, no matter how you qualify your representation.  Not all clients have a legal remedy, for a variety of reasons. This can be a bitter pill to swallow, but the truth is better than false hope.  You can always suggest [and should suggest] a second opinion.

A good case and a paying client don’t necessarily mean the case is right for you.
Don’t let someone push you out of your comfort zone. Law is complex. Staying on top of your desired practice areas is hard enough. Straying into unfamiliar areas is stressful, time consuming, expensive (because of the learning curve), and more likely to result in a claim or bar complaint.

You are a lawyer, not a doctor.
Keeping clients who won’t follow your advice, don’t cooperate, and look to place blame anywhere but with themselves, is a pure misery.  This is not a situation you can cure, except by firing the client.

All Rights Reserved 2018 – Beverly Michaelis

 

7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships

Join me for a CLE on Wednesday, December 6, 2017 about how to cultivate your network, balance client expectations, proactively control social media content, meet client needs, and become more client-centric by exploring the 7 steps to building better client relationships:

  • Capturing better clients
  • Polishing communication skills
  • Advancing client service through technology and staff
  • Managing social media
  • Improving client satisfaction
  • Strengthening client retention
  • Renewing relationships

Topics include how to CYA the right way, how to say “no” gracefully, dos and don’ts when responding to negative online reviews, how to thank clients as part of your everyday, the simple six-step process to stay in touch, and why you should modernize fee arrangements and billing.

Date/Time/Location

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time. This is a live, online webinar.

Who Should Attend?

Lawyers, office administrators, or staff – anyone interested in building better client relationships.

Group Discounts

Discounts available to firms who wish to register 5 or more attendees. Contact organizer to arrange a discount code before registering: beverly@oregonlawpracticemanagement.org.

Does the Program Include Written Materials?

Yes. Written materials are distributed electronically with your registration confirmation.

Ask Questions/Live Polling

Questions are welcome during the live event. Attendees are also encouraged to participate in live, anonymous polling.

Registration Fee

$25 – Visit the Upcoming CLE page, click here, or choose the Register button below. Secure payment processing powered by Eventbrite. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express accepted. Program materials included in the registration price.

Eventbrite - 7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships

MCLE Credits
1.50 practical skills pending.

Can’t Attend?

Video and audio recordings of 7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships will be available to download along with the program materials following the December 6 CLE. Price: $25. Contact me or visit my online CLE store after December 6.

All Rights Reserved [2017] Beverly Michaelis

Client and Case Screening: Lessons Learned

One of the most important skills lawyers must hone is the ability to size up clients and cases.  If you’ve allowed disagreeable clients or “dog” files to creep into your practice, you know exactly what I mean.

Evaluate potential new clients based on the seven keys to successful client screening:

Goals

Are the client’s goals reasonable under the circumstances?  Does a proper legal remedy exist?  If you inform the client that the result she is seeking isn’t possible, how does the client respond to this news?

Motives

What drives the client?  Does he have a “scorched earth,” take no prisoners, sue at all costs mentality?  A desire to “get back” at the other party?  This person may be difficult to manage, if not to please, and unwilling to compromise.

Past Legal History

What is the client’s history with the law, particularly the court system?  Has the client ever filed a lawsuit?  Been sued?  Had a criminal case?  A simple search using the “party name” field in OJCIN will yield results, but these are good questions to ask the client directly.  For one, it may be crucial to know if your client has been involved in a similar or related matter in the past.  Prior testimony could be relevant (or discovered). For screening purposes, the goal is to rule out red flags.  If you discover the client has a record of bringing six unsuccessful civil suits in the last ten years, this may give you pause.

Willingness and Ability to Pay

The client who lacks the funds to pay you up front is very unlikely to come up with the money later.  The client who complains about your fee and pays grudgingly is a fee dispute waiting to happen.  ‘Nuff said.

Lawyer Shopping

This is the most critical screening element in my opinion.  How many lawyers has the client spoken to and why?  Do you get the sense the client is trying to conflict out the other party?  (See Motives, above.)  Has more than one lawyer declined to represent the client?  Did the client fire her former lawyer?  Is the client currently represented, but unhappy?

Getting a second opinion is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, if there is a long line of lawyers behind you move on to the next prospect.

Nonverbal Cues

Sometimes clients tell us what we want to hear.  All the words are right, but the client’s tone is off or he refuses to make eye contact.  When nonverbal cues don’t align with the client’s verbal message, something is wrong.  Either probe the inconsistency or decline representation.

Attitude

The ideal client should have a neutral or positive attitude toward the law and the profession.  A client who has a chip on her shoulder will be difficult to turn around.  Your job is to learn more and weigh for yourself whether this person is someone you want to represent.  You may discover the client’s feelings are justifiable. Or it could be the client is playing the “blame game.”  If so, this is one queue you don’t want to be in.

More to Learn

Learning the seven keys to successful client screening is only part of the battle.  If you want to hone your client and case screening skills, but missed the Client and Case Screening CLE last Wednesday, contact me for information on how to download the written materials.  In addition to the 7 Keys to Successful Client Screening, this CLE also addressed:

  • Integrating screening into client intake
  • Probing clients with 5 must-ask questions
  • Learning how to adjust when you take a case beyond your areas of expertise
  • Debunking the top 10 excuses for taking a bad case
  • Building discipline into the case selection process
  • Declining the poorly-matched client
  • Preparing effective nonengagement and disengagement letters
  • Embracing the lawyer’s Bill of Rights

I anticipate offering this program again in 2017.

All Rights Reserved [2016] Beverly Michaelis

I Wish I Never Represented that Client!

If this is you, consider attending “Client and Case Screening,” a live online CLE event scheduled for August 31, 2016 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.

Learn how to screen clients and cases effectively and efficiently by:

  • Honing your client assessment skills
  • Using a 7 step client screening checklist
  • Integrating screening into client intake
  • Probing clients with 5 must-ask questions
  • Learning how to make adjustments when you take a case beyond your areas of expertise
  • Debunking the top 10 excuses for taking a bad case
  • Building discipline into the case selection process
  • Declining the poorly-matched client
  • Preparing effective nonengagement and disengagement letters
  • Embracing the lawyer’s Bill of Rights

1.0 Practical Skills MCLE credits.

 

Eventbrite - Client and Case Screening for Lawyers