When One Client Feels Like Too Many

Sam Fentress

Courtesy Sam Fentress

Attracting clients is integral to operating a legal practice; successful practitioners have the know-how to select clients, and handle those clients once retained. In smaller practices in particular, the personal side of counselling and client relationships is the basis on which productive provider-client relationships thrive.

Picture this:
      At your first meeting, he tells you what his case is worth and which case law to apply. Although he says the matter is urgent (because his last paralegal was incompetent), he badgers you for a discount. He calls each week with “new information.” He presses for certain strategies, even though you have advised him against those. To your dismay, he becomes even more needy and demanding as the court date nears. You suspect that, even if the case ends in his favour, he will make you chase him down for outstanding fees.

Sound familiar?

Difficult clients just come with the scenery for legal services providers. That first client interview is critical. Use clues gleaned then, and decide whether a difficult client will be worth the extra effort in the long-run, or to take a pass on this one.

How can you spot a difficult client? Warning signs include:

  • Coming to you at the last minute for an important matter
  • Complaining about previous dealings with legal services providers
  • Attempting to barter for services
  • Coming across as a legal know-it-all
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Expecting their matter to take priority
  • Making excessive demands of staff
  • Indicating malice towards other parties

The Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) offers strategies for curbing problems at the client interview stage. Discuss expectations and objectives, including what the client can expect from you, how much that will cost and how long it may take.

Put your recommendations in writing. Unless there is a loss of confidence, legal services providers may be obliged to fulfill their duties regardless of a difficult relationship.

Sometimes, despite the practitioner’s careful interview, a client develops signs of being difficult after signing the retainer. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) identifies different types of “clients from hell.”

CRM’s top-10 difficult clients include:

  • The bargain shopper
  • The client who can’t make deadlines
  • The not-so-small project
  • The one who’s never satisfied
  • The client who wants you to be something you’re not
  • The one who expects you to deliver more for the same price
  • The know-it-all
  • The 100-days-to-pay client
  • The one who wants your home phone number
  • The one with 100 lawyers

CRM strategies for managing or ending the relationship with difficult clients include: raising your rates to be commensurate with the totality of the client’s matter, establishing a block-fee schedule for different stages in the case, and sticking to the scope of work.

Failure to Communicate Makes Matters Worse

An otherwise ideal client may grow restless due to the legal service provider’s own ways of doing business. Lack of regular communication can turn a happy client into a grumpy one. In fact, lack of communication is the number 1 complaint clients make about lawyers and paralegals.

Using technology to update clients can help clients to feel connected. In its recent report, Technology’s Transformation of the Legal Field, Robert Half Legal found that legal services providers are turning to web-based tools to keep clients updated.

Client portals, electronic meetings, audio-conferencing and information-sharing sites offered via mobile devices allow clients to stay in touch without increasing office staff.

Make sure that written information is useful and meaningful, both for you and for the client. Poor communication is the most-common complaint clients make about legal services providers.

Successful advocates say better communication equals better legal representation. In her blog, Legal Ease, Allison Shields notes that it is important not to underestimate the emotional element of the case to the client, even if that client is a savvy business person.

“To you, it may be just another case,” Shields writes. “But to the client, it’s their life, their livelihood, or their business.”

Communication strategies that Shields recommends include:

  • Remind the client of boundaries you set when you were retained
  • Concentrate on the client’s feelings and desired outcome
  • Even if you disagree or are uncomfortable, acknowledge the client’s feelings and refer to similar experiences, to validate those feelings
  • Offer options, even if the client’s goals cannot be met immediately
  • Focus on positive elements of the matter as it stands
  • Avoid becoming defensive, to head off conflict escalation
  • Slowly lay the groundwork for bad news, while reiterating the client’s goals
  • Give the clients the reasons behind options
  • Remind the client that you empathize with them
  • Mirror the client’s thoughts, by accurately reflecting what you have heard the client say
  • Decline clients who “self-identify” as being unable to abide by boundaries you establish


    Useful resources:

    Canadian Justice, Justice Carole Curtis’ article about client management:

    How to listen and engage with clients:

    Communication tips from LAWPRO:

    Delivering bad news:

    An Arizona State University video with client counselling steps:

    Practice Pro paper on managing client relationships:

    Improving written communication:

    Canadian Bar Association article about problem clients and expectations:

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