12.7 Some Types of Difficult Clients and How to Deal With Them

There are many types of difficult persons. In her article "Dealing with the Difficult Client," Carol Curtis identifies nine categories of difficult client:


 Issues and Strategies

 The client who is angry or hostile

 They were angry before they retained you and likely will stay angry. Be careful not to let them mistreat you or your staff. If you tolerate abusive behaviour from them, it will likely continue and increase.

 The client who is out for vengeance, or on a mission which has little to do with the legal issue

 If you are unable to achieve their goal, they will be unhappy and there could be trouble. Be careful the client does not take inappropriate, improper, or illegal actions to achieve their goal.

 The over-involved or obsessive client

 The client may act like a pseudo-lawyer. They may focus all their energy on the legal matter, to the exclusion of other parts of their lives. They will need a lot of attention and are obsessed with their case, often presenting binders or boxes full of documents or materials on their case. They will expect you to read all of it. Try to get them to narrow down the materials needing your attention and bill them regularly so they understand the costs associated with your time and work. Ensure that they receive copies of all of your work for their records. Consider if you can assign the client a task related to the file to give them a way to contribute in a more constructive way and focus their attention.

 The dependent client who is unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their own life

 This client may try and convince you to make decisions for them or simply be unwilling to make a decision. Do not do it! It is unethical for lawyers to make decisions for clients. When the result is not to their liking, they will blame you. Encourage them to find an advisor to accompany them to your meetings and help them consider your advice. You cannot be this advisor!

 The secretive/deceitful/dishonest client

 This person may not understand the importance of openness and honesty in the lawyer-client relationship. However, if the client is deceitful or dishonest with you, consider whether to end the relationship, and whether you even can continue to act.

 The depressed client

 People with depression may not be able to perform normal tasks, such as returning your calls or giving you instructions. It is important that you document this relationship, putting all your advice in writing and asking the client for written instructions. If you cannot get written instructions, confirm the lack of instructions or verbal instructions in writing. Ultimately, if you cannot get instructions from them sufficient to proceed, you need to close the file and inform the client in writing.

 The mentally ill client

 As with the depressed client, you must document the relationship at all stages. You must also be alert to questions of competence to instruct counsel. Having a mental illness does not necessarily mean the person is unable to give instructions, but you must consider their capacity. If you have indications that capacity may be a future issue, consider the need for a power of attorney. Do not become personally involved in their situation. When you can, refer them to mental health professionals.

 The difficult client who has a difficult case

 The person may have unrealistic expectations about the outcome of their case, including cost, time and result. Be clear at the outset about your advice on these matters.

 The client who is not willing or prepared to accept, believe, or follow your advice

 As above, be sure to document the relationship, including advice, outcomes, cost and time frames, all in writing.

This list is not exhaustive. A difficult person might manifest multiple difficult characteristics, and you might encounter a client who is difficult in a unique way.

It is also worth considering the warning signs of a high-conflict personality. As you would expect, these types of people represent a disproportionate share of those involved in high-conflict litigation. Many high-conflict personality types do not accept their lawyer’s assessment of their case and legal strategies. 

Although rare, there are instances in which clients become violent with the parties or lawyers involved in a dispute. It is difficult to identify a potentially violent client in advance, but a person’s words and behaviour can point to this potential.

If you practice in an area that tends to attract high-conflict matters, you may wish to consult resources on how to identify and manage the different types of high-conflict personality. See for example: Identifying and Managing Difficult, High-Conflict Personality Clients by Paul Fisher and Identifying and Managing High Conflict Personality Clients by Grace Lawson. See also: Spotting Dangerous Clients in 3 Steps by Bill Eddy. At the time of print, these resources are available on-line and free-of-charge. Many additional resources are available if you are seeking further information, strategies, and training with respect to dealing with high-conflict individuals.

In sum, different personalities call for different management strategies. Dealing with an over-involved client, for example, will likely require different tactics than dealing with a depressed client. With the former you may need to draw boundaries so you can do your job; with the latter you may need to draw boundaries so they do not place you in the role of therapist. But what remains constant in difficult client scenarios is:

  • identifying the problem or potential problem;
  • establishing parameters that allow you to appropriately manage the relationship; and
  • documenting all the steps you take in dealing with them.

Proper documentation is the best practice in dealing with all clients but is of paramount importance when dealing with difficult clients.

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Last modified: Wednesday, 29 August 2018, 2:34 PM