Kate Gillespie has practiced for years, and she has helped some wonderful clients and some not-so-wonderful clients. She gives us (and you) a little advice about how to handle those difficult clients:
One of the great things about being a lawyer is the change that you can make for people – sometimes for one person, sometimes for a larger group of people. It is fascinating what your education, skill and wisdom can do to help. You can change lives if your clients let you do your job. Sooner or later, though, you will encounter a client that will not let you do the work you were hired to do. These “difficult clients” can make you want tear your hair out; or worse, they can make you want to tear their hair out.
I recently took a case through trial with one of these difficult clients. I was challenged on each and every issue. I took the case late in the litigation and didn’t have the pleasure to prepare and represent him during deposition; so, I was clueless as to his penchant for remembering certain facts that had never surfaced prior to his providing testimony. I was blindsided by his confidence in his legal “expertise” and with that, his chronic lack of trust in my abilities to act as his lawyer. And, I was floored when I discovered that no issue was too small to be challenged on, like appropriate trial attire. (Green sweat pants?) The bottom line is that he believed he knew best and I was a mere mouth piece. I was, however, a mouth piece with a license to protect.
After handling that grueling client, I did some serious soul searching on how this client and many like him should have been handled.
1. Screen your clients
At intake, conduct a complete interview. Get to know your potential client, find out what other litigation she was previously a party to and why. Find out if she is employed or not (this is important not for damages issues, but for your sanity. A client with a lot of free time, is a client that will be taking up your “free time.”) And, find out if any other law firm withdrew from her case and why. If the potential client’s case is already on file, call defense counsel and find out what their experience has been with your potential client BEFORE you take the case.
2. Specify your role in the case
After you conduct research and decide to take the case, don’t simply rest on your decision. Spell out those items that are purely legal in nature and explain that those items, while they can be explained if requested, will not be issues for the client to decide. Simply put, you are being hired to do a job and those items are included in that job.
3. Hold your ground
If you find that the client is ignoring your advice and, in turn, harming his case, discuss with him your professional advice, establish that it he is choosing to ignore the advice, and let him know that ignoring your advice could be detrimental to his case. If the rejection of advice is rampant, follow-up the meeting with a letter to the client explaining the potential consequences of ignoring sound legal advice.
4. Withdraw, if necessary
If after all the letters have been written and your client still will not follow your advice, withdraw from the case. In any relationship, there must be some sort of meeting of the minds. If your client is not working with your advice, it is clear that there was not a meeting of the minds regarding the service your client was hiring you to do and you must disengage the relationship. It will save you time, money, and many sleepless nights.
Kate Gillespie is an associate attorney at a Los Angeles law firm and focuses her practice on the firm’s drug product liability cases, class action cases and commercial trucking accident cases. Her drug litigation includes cases involving birth defects related to antidepressant use and suicide in patients taking SSRIs.