When it comes to problem clients, we all have a story or two to share; but what if it becomes more than that? What if a lawyer comes to realize that he or she is dealing with a problem client far more than once in a blue moon? It can happen, and if and when it does, it’s time to stop and do a little problem solving. It’s time to look for the learning.

Wait, how are you defining the term “problem client?”

A problem client is what you end up with when you fail to establish or fail to maintain a productive attorney-client relationship. Problem clients are often described as having several of the following characteristics. They can be demanding, confrontational, disrespectful, angry, unreasonable, needy, highly emotional, entitled, vengeful and the list goes on.  They may have unrealistic expectations, have a personal agenda, be difficult to stay in touch with, and they are often problem payors at a minimum.

Don’t get me wrong, taking on a client who is needy and highly emotional as an example, doesn’t in and of itself make that client a problem client.  If you are unable, unwilling, or simply don’t have the skill set to productively work with such an individual, however, don’t be surprised if that’s what you eventually end up with.

Are you saying problem clients are the fault of the lawyer?

Yes and no.  Think about it this way.  At the end of representation of a problem client, be it riding things out to the bitter end or deciding to withdraw because life is just too short, a typical response is to put it behind you and move on.  If a lawyer does so and thereby misses the opportunity for learning, then yes the problem clients that follow are the fault of the lawyer.  On the other hand, if a lawyer takes the time to explore the evolution of the problem client looking for ways to prevent the situation from ever happening again, then no.  Sometimes, in spite of one’s best efforts, something is missed, and the occasional problem client ensues.

What am I to look for?

Start by reviewing your intake process. This is where the “fail to establish” problem arises. While I believe most lawyers have learned to effectively screen potential new matters, not as many are quite as effective when it comes to screening potential new clients.  Every new matter comes with a client and taking the time to try and determine if the potential new client is someone you can create a productive attorney-client relationship with is going to be time well spent. Understand that relationships that start out on the wrong foot rarely improve over time and accept the fact that no one is able to work well with everyone that walks through the office door. Look for and learn to recognize when it simply isn’t a match.  That’s when you should be thinking about to saying thanks but no.

To help you get started, always try to determine if the prospective can truly afford your services because the bill is often an issue with problem clients. Look for any warning signs.  For example, does the social media presence of the individual jive with how he or she presented to you?  Ask what the expectations of you and your staff are in order to determine if you can meet them.  In short, it’s all about trying to get to know who the prospective is as an individual and allowing a little time for your gut to weigh in as well.

In order to address the “failure to maintain” problem one needs to go a bit further. Step back and ask yourself whether your own actions throughout the representation helped create the problem client.  Perhaps the client had some legitimate emotional needs (e.g., recently received some devastating news such as a cancer diagnosis) and you’re not one who relates well to highly emotional individuals.  In other words, could your own inability to meet your client’s legitimate, yet non-legal needs have caused the client to be dissatisfied enough to become a highly volatile problem client?  Have this discussion with everyone at your firm that interacted with the problem client.  Be open to identifying communication shortfalls.  Try to determine how the relationship went south.  Take any learning that’s to be had from the experience and use it to improve your skills in successfully managing effective attorney-client relationships.

Why take the time?

It’s pretty much a given in the practice of law. Stress is part of the equation. And while I get that, as a risk manager I also appreciate that the likelihood of a misstep occurring rises the higher a lawyer’s stress level rises. Even one problem client typically demands a disproportionate amount of time and can come at a cost to the amount of remaining time available to other clients. Problem clients are unpleasant to interact with, difficult to satisfy, and often are collection problems.  Problem clients are also more likely to file a malpractice suit or disciplinary complaint.  These are high stress, low reward relationships.  It seems obvious to me.  One clearly effective way to reduce stress is to do all you can to avoid taking on problem clients.

I’m simply suggesting that it is worthwhile to take time to look for the learning when an attorney-client relationship doesn’t play out as expected.  Is there not value in taking some time now and again to ask, “What can I learn from this” when an opportunity presents itself?  I believe it’s especially wise to ask that question about those parts of our professional lives that aren’t as satisfactory as we’d like.  As I see it, learning from the problems we find ourselves in is the only way to avoid making the same mistake over and over.

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