Some Types of Difficult Clients and How to Deal With Them

There are many types of difficult clients. We have identified nine categories of difficult clients:

  • the client who is angry or hostile. They were angry before they retained you and likely will stay angry. Be careful not to let them mistreat you or your staff.  If you tolerate abusive behavior from them, it will likely continue and increase;
  • the client who is out for vengeance or on a mission which has little to do with the legal issues. If you are unable to achieve their goal they will be unhappy and there could be trouble.  Be careful the client does not take inappropriate or illegal actions to achieve their goals;
  • the over-involved or obsessive client. This client may act like a pseudo-lawyer. They may focus all their energy on the legal matter, to the exclusion of other parts of their life. They will need a lot of attention and are obsessed with their case, often presenting binders or boxes full of documents or materials on their case. They will expect you to read all of it. Try to get them to narrow down the materials needing your attention, bill them regularly so they understand the cost associated with your time and work, and ensure they receive copies of all of your work for their records;
  • the dependent client who is unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their life. They may try and convince you to make decisions for them, or simply be unwilling to make a decision. Do not do it. When the result is not to their liking they will blame you. Encourage them to find an advisor, other than yourself, to accompany them to your meetings and consider your advice;
  • the secretive/deceitful/dishonest client. This person may or may not understand the importance of openness and honesty in the lawyer-client relationship. However, if the client is deceitful or dishonest with you, consider whether to end the retainer;
  • the depressed client. People with depression may not be able to perform normal tasks, such as returning your calls or giving you instructions. It is important to document this relationship, putting all your advice in writing and asking the client for written instructions. If you cannot get written instructions confirm the lack of instruction or their verbal instructions in writing. Ultimately, if you cannot get instructions from them sufficient to proceed you need to close the file and inform the client in writing;
  • the mentally ill client, who can be unpredictable and change their instructions regularly. As with a depressed client you must document this relationship at all stages. You must also stay alert to questions of competence to instruct counsel. Just because a person has mental illness does not make them incompetent to give you instructions, but you must always consider their capacity. If you have indications that competency may be a future issue, consider the need for a power of attorney. Do not become personally involved in their situation. When you can, refer them to mental health professionals;
  • the difficult client who has a difficult case. This person may have unrealistic expectations about the outcome of their case, including costs, time and result. Be clear at the outset your advice as to these matters; and
  • the client who is not willing or prepared to accept, believe, or follow your advice. As above, be sure to document the relationship, including advice, outcomes, cost and time frames, all in writing.

Community Discussion

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If someone's mental illness is at the level to be considered a disability, is refusing to take them as a client considered discrimination against the human rights code?