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How to Handle the Client from Hell

Vivia Chen

September 30, 2013

Man_Yelling_Phone © Picture-Factory - Fotolia.comThey want deal documents drafted in less than 24 hours. They want the answer to that complex tax issue now. They want to close the deal next week. Plus, they want a discount. And, oh, if there's a snag anytime, it will be your fault and there will be hell to pay.

In the power dynamics of client/lawyer relationship, lawyers are almost always the oppressed. What lawyer doesn't have stories of clients who throw their weight around?

They're like abusive boyfriends—needy, threatening, and sometimes scary. And you will do most anything to keep them, because what will become of you otherwise?

Law firms have toxic cultures, writes Mark Goulston, a business psychiatrist, in the Harvard Business Review blog because of clients' demanding behavior:

When they are not able to push back on or fire these clients, partners will often take it out by “kicking the dog” in the form of yelling at their associates or staff. I’ve even seen some turn to drugs, alcohol and a variety of unhealthy habits to redirect their frustration. The fact is that as much as there are some clients that law firms would do well to turn away or fire, they won’t. They’re just too profitable.

So how should you handle the nasty client? When a client is abusive, Goulston says you should look at him in the left eye ("which is attached to their right emotional brain"), pause, then say one of the following:

- “Say that again?”

- “Do you really believe what you just said?”

- “Huh?” (as in, “Excuse me”)

- “What was that all about?”

- “Excuse me, I apologize, but my mind wandered over the past few minutes, can you please repeat what you just said?”

Goulston also advises that you should discuss with your volatile client beforehand the best way to convey bad news: "Going forward, in the event I have to tell you about a bump and obstacle or setback, what is the best way to tell you?"

Interesting ideas, but will they work? I agree with Goulston that you should appear calm (remember, you're the lawyer—the rational one), but would saying something like "Huh?" or "Do you believe what you just said?" cause an unreasonable client to stop, reflect, and behave reasonably? Let's just say I'm doubtful. If anything, those remarks might inflame the guy further.

Wouldn't it be better to just tell the guy his remarks were unfair and unwarranted? And while you're at it, why not tell the schmuck that he hurt your feelings? Isn't being straightforward without sounding sarcastic and patronizing a wiser approach?

But perhaps the most prudent course of all is just to suck it up—and do what others have always done: Take it out on a poor underling, your family, or your dog.

What's your view?

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 Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].


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Easy - a part of your retainer letter should be that on any day when the client behaves like an a-hole, they will be billed 5 hours for every hour actually worked! If they decline to sign such an arrangement, you know their plans in advance.

There's a minimum amount of decency, decorum, and dignity that human beings ought to show one another. With the client from hell or wherever that runs afoul of that, I simply show them the door, followed by a termination letter informing them that their business and behavior are not welcomed. Even as a solo practitioner I'd rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable. That way is better for the soul, mind, spirit, and body. You will then have more time and positive energy to devote to your remaining clients, as well as to your friends, family, and dog.

I am one of those underlings who has taken the brunt of a bully client, and I have also found a way to deflect their demeanor before transferring such personalities to the attorney for whom I work. My method? I am not patronizing or cavity-sweet when answering the phone, but I have conveyed a confidence that their matter is being handled and that their phone call will either be transferred or the call will be returned promptly. I had some particularly arrogant gentlemen who could be assuaged by simply talking pleasantly to them--it appears that their gruffness begot gruffness but I wasn't going to hand that to them. They calmed down after that.

A long drawn out silence by the receiver can be an effective reflective point for a hysterical person. Just pausing - perhaps with a quizzical look on your face then taking the meat of the problem and moving forward.Who can criticize you for being silent?

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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