Some Types of Difficult Clients and How to Deal With Them

There are many types of difficult clients.  We have identified nine categories and list some of the common traits:
  1. The client who is angry or hostile. They were angry before they retained you and likely will stay angry. Be careful that they do not mistreat you or your staff.  If you tolerate abusive behaviour from them, the behaviour will continue and probably worsen.
  2. The client who is out for vengeance or on a mission which has little to do with the legal issues for which you were hired. If you are unable to achieve their goal, they will be unhappy.  Be watchful, as this client may want to take inappropriate or illegal actions to achieve their goals.
  3. The over-involved or obsessive client. These clients may focus all their energy on the legal matter, to the exclusion of other areas of their lives. They will need much attention and are obsessed with their case.  They will often present binders or boxes full of documents or materials on their case. They will expect you to read all of it. Try to get these clients to narrow down the material that is relevant to the matter and bill them regularly so they understand the cost associated with your time and work.  Ensure that they receive copies of all documents you prepare on their behalf and regular reporting of their matter for their records.
  4. The dependent client who is unable, or sometimes unwilling, to take responsibility for their life. They may try to 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. You may want to encourage them to find an advisor, to accompany them to your meetings and to help them consider your advice.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 keep written notes of your interactions, and consider putting all your advice in writing and asking the client for instructions in writing. If you cannot obtain written instructions, confirm the lack of instruction or any verbal instructions you receive in writing. Ultimately, if you are not able to obtain instructions which allow you to work on the file, you may need to close the file and inform the client in writing.  Remember your obligations to your client pursuant to the Code of Conduct, however. 
  7. The client suffering from a mental illness, who may be unpredictable and who may change their instructions regularly. As with a depressed client, you must document in writing all communications and all actions you take on the file. You must also stay alert to questions of competence to instruct counsel. However, be cautious, a person who has a mental illness is not necessarily incompetent to give you instructions. If you have indications that competency may be an issue in the future, consider the need for a power of attorney. Do not become involved in aspects of their personal lives that are not related to their legal issues. If you are able, refer these clients to mental health professionals.
  8. The difficult client who has a difficult case. This person may have unrealistic expectations about the outcome of their case, including cost, time and result. Give clear advice from the outset as to these matters.
  9. The client who is not willing or prepared to accept, believe or follow your advice. As above, be sure to document the elements of the relationship in writing including your advice, outcomes, cost and time frames.