How to Deal with Difficult Clients

Though no one will admit it, more than a few attorneys who are otherwise competent negotiators have returned to their office after a client meeting, closed the door, plotted revenge or, worse, wept (metaphorically speaking). Why do some clients have this aggravating effect? I know a managing partner of a prominent New Jersey firm who bluntly characterizes working with such demanding and infuriating clients as "doing the impossible for the ungrateful." Yes, some clients can put you on the road to being a walking basket case. Sometimes, though, it also works the other way.

It would be easy to attribute annoying client behavior to a personality problem or shortcoming and grumble about it. But most often these kinds of situations get out of hand because of poorly managed interpersonal relations that may cloud any crucial discussions with clients on case strategy and related matters. In short, it's most advantageous when a lawyer knows how and when to press a client's button to defuse what otherwise might be aggravating situations before they go from bad to worse.

To deal more effectively with demanding clients, one must pay attention to negotiation styles and personality types, so you are not rubbing each other the wrong way and interpersonal differences are diminished -- yes, the same negotiation strategies one would use with adverse parties. Like baseball hitters who study pitchers, there are a few personality types who are apt to give you headaches.

Personality types

First a caveat: All personality profile descriptions are gross simplifications of human behavior. No one operates solely in one demeanor or perfectly fits the stereotype.

Nevertheless, in the way people conduct themselves -- both attorneys and clients, et al. -- they tend to fit into one style or mold more heavily than another. And that makes for some degree of typecasting.

So, to avoid winding up with a case of hives or a nervous twitch, it pays to have a handle on the various personality types you are likely to encounter and how best to deal them. In short, take your best guess about which category that nerve-racking client best fits into and act accordingly.

The benefit of using these personality profiles to understand how your style interacts with that of the client is that they minimize personality differences and facilitate better communication and faster decision-making.

Simply put, attorneys who adjust their style to mesh with a client's personality type are less likely to suffer stress and annoyance in the relationship. And clients are less likely to defect because they are feeling ignored, misperceived, or undervalued -- the reasons clients go elsewhere in nearly seven of every 10 circumstances.

There are two personality styles that involve clients who have little tolerance for taking risks and tend to make decisions only after time-consuming and tedious discussions about the often extraneous facts and minutiae of a case. These "analyticals" are methodical and fact-oriented. When negotiating with them, stick to business and use lots of details to demonstrate the logic of your proposals and strategy. Make the client feel comfortable with the course of action you're recommending. If you don't take the time to do this, you probably will be met with seemingly endless delay. Indeed, what you might get is a barrage of client responses like: "I need more information on . . . " or "Tell me how many other times you have used this proposed strategy, and tell me everything that could go wrong."

The second risk-averse personality type is the "amiable," a seemingly accommodating, low-pressure type. Such clients, too, dote first on small, sometimes irrelevant facts, but they are also concerned with the effects of their decisions on other people -- they do not want to ruffle any feathers (including those of the other side) in making decisions. In your negotiation with an "amiable," slow down and focus on benefits to them and people on their side.

Two other personality types are willing to take risks. The "driver" is a fast-paced, big-picture person, not primarily concerned with the impact of decisions on others. While good for brinkmanship, they hate the details that sometimes must be comprehended in order to set a viable plan or strategy. And, in most instances, they want nothing short of a clear-cut victory. Slow them down, and never compete with them if this also is your own personality style.

And then there are the "expressives." They are quick decision-makers and do not mind risk either, but they want everything to be "win-win," hoping never to be thought of as overreaching or sharp. Lay out a number of alternatives that reduce the chance of them being perceived by others in a bad light.

Lawyers can avoid many a harrowing experience with clients just by thinking ahead about how to approach situations likely to arise. An often overlooked facet of preparation is the construction of two, if not three, levels of service (or strategies) and the accompanying fees each will cost. For example, an individual comes to the office wanting to sue a former employer for wrongful discharge and the attorney believes it's an actionable claim. Proposal No. 1 might entail particular actions on your part up to a specific fee limitation. Proposal No. 2 might call for a higher fee range and more aggressive actions. Having multiple options and a rationale for the related fees keeps clients from nibbling at your profits.

Conflict and closure

Despite best efforts, conflicts, of course, do happen. It's easy to say no to a client who wants your service dirt cheap, but it's wiser and more beneficial to your practice if you instead offer an alternative that is fair to both you and the client -- like trading concessions of equal or near equal value.

For example, a client may say, "I would like to pursue the first proposal you made, but I want you to do all the work, not your associate." The attorney might reply, "I can do that, but in fairness to us both, I can't increase my cost basis without some help from you. Would it be acceptable for you to make quicker payment (or more of the fee up-front) as an equitable solution?"

Now, experience has shown that although valid points in conflict usually boil down to a handful, clients may still object. For the intransigent few, consider the following questions to get at the rationale behind the objection:

"You must have a reason for saying that (objection). Would you tell me more about that?" Or, "I'm unclear why you are saying that; tell me more."

"If I were to do what you are asking (paint the full, inequitable picture), what would my (partner, accountant) think of this? In fact, Mr. Client, what would you do in my shoes?"

Usually, it is the only the criminally insane who would not respond reasonably. Unfortunately, we all know a few criminally insane, and if any clients fall into this category, you might consider having them work with another attorney in your firm.

Of course, if you've had an argument with your spouse, eaten a lousy meal at a very expensive restaurant, or somehow lost the last couple pages of your opponent's 196-page brief, there's always one more option or creative solution in dealing with aggravating clients. Refer them to a competitor. . . . Just kidding, folks.

This article has been reprinted with permission from New Jersey Lawyer, April 28, 1997.