Family lawyers are often faced with difficult clients or cases; try these techniques next time you have a client who’s hard to work with.
By Christian Denmon, Personal Injury and Insurance Attorney
Dealing with difficult clients and complex cases is not unusual for lawyers – especially family lawyers. It can be tricky to handle high conflict cases or clients who are stubborn, aggravated, high-maintenance, or upset.
However, great communication skills can take you a long way in these instances. Staying composed and calm is half the battle, and knowing how to respond to clients in difficult situations or who are difficult themselves is crucial for lawyers.
Next time you have an intractable client, try these tips to de-escalate the situation.
10 Tips for Managing Difficult Clients
Difficult clients are fairly common because, for many, they’re in a highly stressful situation. The stakes are high financially and personally, especially for people going through a major life event like a divorce. Sometimes, a difficult case or conversation is unavoidable. Some cases – like high-stakes or high-conflict divorce cases – will naturally provide more challenges. However, there are steps you can take to help keep your clients calm and keep everything moving smoothly.
1. Establish Boundaries
Setting boundaries and enforcing them with a demanding client can feel a bit uncomfortable. But it’s important both for managing client expectations and your own wellbeing.
Start small to practice. Starting with smaller, less important requests will get you used to what it’s like to establish boundaries with such clients. Taking it one step at a time will help you become more comfortable with it.
Don’t say yes to every demand immediately. Let your client know that you’ll get back to them, check your schedule, or revisit the subject at a later date so you can think it over. This helps prevent you from having a knee-jerk reaction.
2. Highlight the Benefits of Your Service
This is generally good advice for attracting the right clients and retaining them. It helps you stand out from your competitors.
But in the case of uncooperative/egocentric clients, this helps center the focus around them. Centering the focus around the client and how it will benefit them can turn their attitude around.
3. Don’t Get Defensive – But Do Apologize
Sometimes, getting overly defensive can leave a belligerent client feeling even more belligerent than usual. If your client is angry, be sure to apologize – even if you are not at fault. Saying, “I’m sorry that you are feeling so frustrated/angry/upset,” can make them feel heard while not admitting blame for how they’re feeling.
Defending yourself/your actions without acknowledging your client’s upset makes them feel as if you’re dismissing their concerns. Keeping a level head can help you de-escalate a tense situation with an enraged client.
4. Set Realistic Expectations
A new client will have at least a few expectations when they walk into your office for the first time. These usually include:
- Time commitments.
- Cost of service.
- Value of service.
- Case results.
Setting realistic expectations while maintaining a positive attitude can help prevent difficult client situations. It’s important to be honest about what they can expect from the get-go.
You will likely have to continue to manage a client’s expectations as the case goes on. Be sure to keep an open line of communication and be respectful.
5. Never Just Say “Yes” or “No” to a Client’s Demands
Flatly telling a difficult client “no” can be a recipe for disaster. The “Yes, If/No, But” method stems from negotiating and closing strategies. But it can be extremely useful for handling difficult clients at your law firm.
For example, if a client asks you for something you can’t do (legally, ethically, or in the client’s time frame), you can reply with, “No, but we can do this instead and achieve similar results.” Similarly, if a client has a labor-intensive request they want to be completed yesterday, you can say, “Yes – if we do X, Y, and Z first.”
6. Know What to Look Out for
Establishing some warning signs can help you avoid taking on bad clients in the first place. Create a list of red flags that you can keep for yourself, even if it’s just something you commit to memory.
When you first meet with a potential client, make sure you ask enough questions to get as much information as you can. Being extremely clear about your services, boundaries, and the process can also be helpful when trying to spot how easy or difficult a client will be to work with.
7. Understand the Client’s Concerns
A little sympathy can go a long way. Showing the client that you understand their concerns helps them feel heard and appreciated. This can make the process of a difficult case a bit easier.
Some ways you can show the client you understand and are sympathetic are:
- Acknowledging their feelings when they are upset or angry
- Validate the client’s feelings and let them know they’re not alone in feeling how they feel
- If a client shares a concern, restate it when reviewing the case details with them
This shows sympathy and understanding and will help make your clients feel more comfortable.
8. Adequately Prepare Them for any Bad News
If you have bad news for your client, rushing into it will just be a shock to their system and can cause a panic. Be sure to ease into the situation. Prepare what you will say, how you will deliver it, and what your lead-in will be.
It is also important to follow the bad news up with something positive. This can be as simple as discussing the next steps you can take to help the client reach their goal.
9. Focus on Solutions
Highlighting the negative will likely upset the client or make them feel frustrated. Instead of framing things with what you can’t do, highlight what you can do.
Setting up small goals to tackle one at a time can be helpful for both you and the client to feel like you’re making progress.
10. Get Additional Help or Training
Some clients or situations can be especially tough, and managing them effectively may be beyond your current skillset. There is no shame in furthering your education on the subject.
If you find yourself struggling with a case, reach out to your fellow attorneys to see if they can offer insight.
When dealing with particularly difficult clients, consider coaching as part of your continuing legal education (CLE). Many lawyer conferences offer CLE opportunities for you to grow your communication skills and earn credit towards your CLE obligations.
Christian Denmon is a Tampa, Florida Trial Lawyer with Denmon & Pearlman trial lawyers. A truly progressive firm, the firm offers fixed fee engagements, service guarantees, and focuses on picking the right process to lead to a principled settlement for clients. Christian lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and two children. www.denmonpearlman.com
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