By Alexandra "Ally" Kennedy, CEO and Founder AMIGA Lawyers
Though there are many great clients who make this job rewarding and fulfilling, there are those handful of clients who are just plain difficult. A difficult client can manifest in many ways: excessive calls, showing up for unscheduled appointments, accusing the lawyer of not doing her job, lying about important information, complaining about fees, and the like. It is an unpleasant experience for us all, but here are a few tips to help manage those sticky situations:
1. Update your contract
Your contract is your first line of defense. It is an important tool for managing client expectations. Take a look at your contract: does it provide for tools in dealing with difficult clients? Are you protected in the event you incur extra work that is associated with excessive phone calls and the like?
An "extra work" clause sets out additional charges for work that is outside of what is usual and reasonable in a certain type of case. It is a good idea to give examples of what could invoke the application of the extra work clause, such as unrevealed criminal history and excessive phone calls and emails.
A "failure to cooperate" clause sets up expected behavior. There is a charge incurred each time a client's action or inaction causes difficulties in completing or managing the case. Some examples include failing to provide the attorney with information and documents she needs to prepare the case in a timely manner and/or failing to update contact information with the law firm within a reasonable amount of time.
2. Set clear boundaries
Despite being attorneys and essentially arguing for a living, it is likely that very few of us enjoy confrontation. When a client is being difficult, it can require that we confront him about his behavior. This is especially sensitive when we do not want to lose the client, however we need the behavior to change in order to continue working together. In many cases this can be avoided by setting clear boundaries from the beginning.
As mentioned above, the contract is the first and best opportunity to set boundaries. However, sometimes situations come up that were not anticipated or maybe you want to give your client a chance before enforcing any clauses of the contract. In that case it is important to speak clearly with the client about your expectations going forward and clear up any miscommunications.
Setting boundaries is imperative if you decide to give your personal cell phone number to a client. If you do not want the number to be used outside of office hours say so from the beginning. If a client does text or call you on a weekend about something that is not urgent (I personally define "urgent" as "walking onto a plane in the next 48 hours," otherwise it can wait until Monday), it is imperative that a short, respectful message be sent reminding him to text only during office hours. (As a side note, if you want to give a client a number to text, maybe try a Google number because it is free, keeps a log of your texts, and is easy to turn on and off when you do not want to receive messages. )
3. Take copious notes
As a matter of practice, we should take notes after any and all client interactions. When dealing with a difficult client, detailed note-taking is even more important. Instead of jotting down the main ideas of the conversation, you should go into more details and may want to write down actual quotes of things you both said if you think it is necessary. If possible, have your notes open and write them as you are speaking with the client. Excellent notes can help protect you in the event the relationship takes a turn for the worst.
4. Follow up all conversations with a written letter
After any conversations with the client, send a letter summarizing what was discussed. Try to make your communication as clear as possible. If you are asking the client to take next steps, be sure to outline the steps using headings and bullet points where appropriate.
If you have threatened the client with enforcing a clause of the contract, such as the "extra work" clause, use the letter as a way to provide a written warning to the client. Summarize what conduct could cause a fee to be incurred. Never rest solely on your notes, or worse, your memory. One of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received was, "Always prepare your cases as if another attorney were coming in behind you." With Lozada requirements looming in the minds of all immigration practitioners, a letter provides you with the extra backup in case things turn sour. It is an easy way to CYA.
5. Protect your energy
Confrontation is exhausting. Tension is tiring. I use calming techniques to prepare for meetings with difficult clients. Before the meeting, take a moment to take 3 deep breaths, breathing in for 5 seconds and out for 5 seconds. Getting your breath and focus centered will allow you to be less affected by the energy that will be exchanged in the meeting. I like to say a silent petition, "Please protect my energy today. Do not allow me to take on the energy of others in this meeting. Please help me to remain calm and neutral." I envision a white light enveloping my body and working as an energetic shield to protect me. It may sound a little woo-woo, but these techniques have helped me be able to handle stressful situations with more ease and less stress and anxiety. When I lower my chaotic energy (stress and tension create chaos energetically and emotionally), I find that it helps my clients neutralize their energy as well.
6. If necessary, fire the client
For many of us, firing a client is the absolute last resort. If the relationship becomes increasingly difficult and could potentially result in the failure to be able to comply with the RPC's, then we have to terminate the attorney/ client relationship. An advisor once told me, "Sometimes the best clients are the ones you don't take." That also applies to parting ways with a client. Be honest with yourself about the situation and what you need to do for your practice, yourself, and for your client's best interests. Be sure to send a very detailed letter to the client regarding future obligations (such as date, time, location of appointments or court and a list of required documents pertaining to the case). It is also a good idea to also provide a list of free legal aid as well as a list of other immigration attorneys who you recommend.
About your Ally in Life, Business and Law:
Alexandra "Ally" Kennedy is a national award-winning attorney and the founder of AMIGA Lawyers and Alexandra Kennedy Immigration Law.. After becoming a mother, and in a matter of 3 months, Ally transformed her practice from earning in pesos to earning 6-figures and she is passionate about teaching attorneys how they can do the same. Ally empowers lawyers to be the CEOs of their law firms with her weekly blog, webinars, and conferences where she teaches step-by-step how to do the work they love while running a profitable legal business. Ally lives outside of Seattle with her partner and their 5 children.