How do you deal with difficult clients?

As lawyers we all work with people. Doing so, we come across difficult people from time to time and we have to learn how to deal with them.

My favorite story (that was quite entertaining for my then colleagues’ too) happened in my previous job. I was a lawyer of a government funded organization in the construction industry (I wrote about it here). There were (at least) two parties in a case, meaning what this always means: unless there is an agreement reached, one of them is essentially dissatisfied in the end. One such person called me on this particular occasion, they already started by raising their voice from the greeting, and we went from there. Ignoring their tone, I slowly walked them through the steps of the procedure, explained what the end result meant for them and how can they go forward with it. By the time we said goodbye, they just kept thanking me for the help and even invited me and my family to their holiday resort (of course I never went, but that’s not the point).

When it comes to people who are dissatisfied or upset about something that somehow has to do with your job, in my experience, keeping a calm tone, no matter what voice they are using, is almost always a winner. They either get embarrassed for being carried away, or just get tired of the one-sided argument. It is best to give them the signal that you are doing your job, and no matter how upset they are, you must keep doing it. Not every conversation will end the way mine did (mine don’t always end that way, obviously), but most of the time you can end on a civilized note and that’s all we hope for.

I am sure we all know the other type of difficult client, I call them “the demanding”, the one who thinks their case is the only one we have and we have all the time for them. They want what they want and they want it immediately when they call. When the request is reasonable, and the result really should be prompt, of course you do everything to deliver. But when there’s no reason to throw away everything (including perhaps more urgent tasks), what I do is I try to reassure them how important their case is for me, and ask them if they would mind if I finished something super important, and then immediately attend to it. Usually they don’t say no, when they have the choice. We often make the mistake of replying every such “demand” as urgent, when all you have to do is ask, and remind them that you have other things to do.

Oddly enough the one kind of “difficult” client I find the hardest to deal with is perhaps not difficult at all. They are the ones who keep mistaking you for their therapist and use your precious work hours for venting (unless of course you can charge those hours on them, but even then, you could do your actual job instead). From time to time I come across those people who can rant about their lives for hours on end without giving a thought to my time. It is super annoying when I really do have something important, and those are the occasions when I excuse myself in a polite manner, of course. But as I am really bad at lying, when all I have is my usual job to do, I find it hard to “get rid of them”, as I think about them as part of my job. Is it crazy of me?

Again, this is something to learn and practice. Although every person is different, and categorizing them like this is oversimplifying, but the more you deal with them, the more problems you solve, the better you get at it.

How about you? Do you have a favorite 'difficult client story'? Let me know in the comments (or on Twitter, or LinkedIn, if that’s your thing).

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