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Improving Attorney-Client Communications: How to Work with Difficult Clients 

Morgan Casper

Written by

Morgan Casper


October 10, 2023

Improving Attorney-Client Communications: How to Work with Difficult Clients 

As a lawyer, communicating well with your clients is essential to providing strong legal representation. Unfortunately, not every client is easy to work with, especially regarding communication.

Regardless of what your practice area is, you are bound to deal with difficult clients throughout your career as an attorney. Whether the clients are dissatisfied with your representation or blatantly disregard your legal advice, dealing with demanding clients is part of the job. 

Sometimes, proper attorney-client communication is key to resolving these issues before they rise to the level of malpractice lawsuits or other less-than-ideal outcomes. Good communication can help you weather your engagement with a challenging client and stop a situation from escalating.

Fortunately, there are methods you can use to improve attorney-client communications to help you provide your client with strong legal representation and resolve issues quickly. In this post, we’ll discuss best practices and strategies for working with difficult clients. 

These methods and strategies for working with challenging clients include: 

  • Manage Client Expectations: set clear expectations with your clients and convey them early on. Mary Ellen Kelleher, our VP of Product, suggests creating a formal client packet outlining your policies and approaches to send them for reference. You can set task reminders in your legal practice management software to ensure you don’t forget to send this to each client at the outset of working with them.
  • Maintain Boundaries: develop and communicate boundaries with your clients. Ensure you’re consistent because inconsistency will muddy any guidelines you provide your clients when you set expectations. Additionally, avoid using your personal cell phone for communications. Instead, use your client portal so everything is secure, recorded, and tracked for time, as well.
  • Stay Positive and Solution-Oriented: focus on conveying the value of your legal representation and provide solutions based on your client’s individual circumstances. “Clients can leverage Matter Tags to identify any unique instances for quick reference for your staff. That way, if someone’s case requires urgent responses, you can provide them with the best service to move toward a solution,” says Mary Ellen.
  • Be Human: be empathetic and work to understand your client’s concerns and needs. In your first meeting, capture what success looks like for your client and memorialize that in a memo so that you understand your client’s mindset. This documentation also helps you identify if this client matches your approach before you engage them as a retaining client. Moreover, you understand their expectation and can explain to them the road toward achieving their goals.

The Importance of Attorney-Client Communication

According to the American Bar Association, poor communication is one of the leading causes of malpractice lawsuits. Malpractice lawsuits can jeopardize your legal career and professional reputation and take away valuable time and resources from your practice. 

When you communicate with your clients, you want to make sure that you are building their confidence in you and your skills, managing their expectations, and improving the quality of your legal representation. 

Strong communication between you and your clients is crucial to reaching your goals and satisfying your clients. There are a few best practices that you can use to improve your attorney-client communication, regardless of whether you are dealing with a difficult client or an average client. 

Attorney Client Communication Best Practices

Manage Client Expectations

Managing your client’s expectations is extremely important to maintaining strong attorney-client communication. Upfront, you should be clear about your legal fees, the likelihood of a good outcome, the time it will take to resolve their matter, and other key details. 

This will eliminate surprises and prepare your client for what is to come. Depending on your practice area, the cases you handle may be very sensitive. Preparing your client for every possible outcome and what to expect will make it easier for you and your client. 

It is also essential to make sure that you are frequently communicating with your client throughout the case. Managing their expectations upfront is not always enough to ensure they stay on the same page as you throughout your time together. 

By reducing the likelihood of your client feeling surprised or blindsided by the length of the case, the cost of your services, or the outcome, you minimize the chances of your client feeling dissatisfied and causing further conflict. 

Maintaining Boundaries With Clients

Clients can be demanding for many reasons, but usually, it has nothing to do with you or your capabilities as an attorney. Attorney At Law Magazine delves into why demanding clients are dissatisfied or overly dependent on their lawyer. One includes the client confidentiality rule that all lawyers must abide by. 

Attorney-client privilege and confidentiality can allow the difficult client to feel like the attorney is more of a therapist than their legal counsel. This can cause them to push boundaries, place a lot of pressure on their attorney, and project personal issues onto the case and their lawyer. 

When working with a difficult client, you may want to overextend yourself or make yourself highly available to them to increase their satisfaction with your services. This is usually not the best way to handle the situation. 

It is best to set boundaries with the client at the start of representation and maintain those throughout the attorney-client relationship. 

Here are a few boundaries you may consider implementing:

  • Setting certain hours when you are reachable by phone 
  • Maintaining a 24-hour email response time 
  • Requiring your client to schedule a meeting before dropping into your office 

You also want to ensure that your automatic answer to every client request is not “yes.” While you want to keep your clients happy and do everything you can to help them, there will inevitably be times when the best answer you can give them is a “no” or “I’ll get back to you.” 

Whenever you have to say “no” to a client’s request, especially when difficult, we recommend you provide an alternative approach or solution so they don’t feel frustrated or shut down.

Overall, you never want to push your own boundaries or overextend yourself just to satisfy a difficult client. Usually, that will not help the client or their case, and it will deplete your energy as their lawyer. 

Stay Positive and Solution-Oriented with Difficult Clients 

Along those lines, when you have to say no to your client or deliver bad news, it is best to do so positively. There are going to be many times in the course of your career when your client gets bad news or becomes overwhelmed during their case. In these instances, it can be challenging to maintain an upbeat demeanor, especially in the face of a negative client. 

Regardless of how your client interacts with you, you should always maintain a professional attitude focused on solving the problem. While they may be voicing their concerns and frustrations in a less than positive manner, if you maintain a solution-oriented approach to your conversations, you will be able to de-escalate the situation more effectively. 

Rather than allowing your client to dwell on the problem, staying solution-oriented means focusing on the actions you can take to solve the problem. While offering your clients viable solutions to their problems, reiterate that your representation and action plan are geared toward that end. Make sure that they know that you are working hard to help them get the best possible outcome. 

Be Empathetic When Working With Difficult Clients

With that said, when your client becomes overwhelmed, angry, or otherwise emotional as a result of bad news or other problems in their case, being sympathetic and empathetic will go a long way. Your client, regardless of how difficult they are, wants to feel like you understand their feelings and frustrations. 

While it is easy to get frustrated in response to an angry or combative client, approaching your clients with empathy will invite them to be much more receptive to what you say. You can do this by listening while your client speaks to you without thinking about how you will respond. Prioritize listening to understand the client’s perspective rather than to get the information you need to present a legal solution.

To demonstrate that you are listening, make sure to acknowledge your client’s feelings, validate their feelings, and address their concerns. It is much easier to stay level-headed and compassionate when you remember that your client is a human being just like you. 

How to Improve Attorney-Client Communications to Work with Difficult Clients

Learning to deal with demanding clients by mastering attorney-client communication is essential to protecting your reputation, avoiding malpractice lawsuits, and building strong relationships with your clients. 

Three communications strategies to master client communications

  1. Manage client expectations

Make sure to be transparent about your legal fees. Consider building a fee schedule to share with clients, or at minimum, use consistent language and fee structures when discussing the cost of your services.

Be transparent about the likelihood of a positive outcome and other key information at the start of representation. Setting clear expectations whenever possible can lessen the opportunity for client conflict later.

  1. Maintain your boundaries

At the beginning of your attorney-client relationship, clearly communicate how your client can reach you and when. Utilizing applications like Smokeball’s client portal can ensure boundaries are kept and maintain clear boundaries.

  1. Stay positive and solution-oriented 

Always focus on actions that you can take to help your client reach their goals. Be proactive in anticipating each step, listen well, and keep a level head.

Enhancing attorney-client communication is pivotal for a successful relationship. By setting clear expectations, maintaining boundaries, and staying positive, you can effectively manage even the most challenging client interactions. Utilizing the right strategies ensures both parties remain informed and aligned throughout the legal journey.

Simplify your attorney-client communication with Smokeball’s Communicate client portal.

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