Warning Signs of a Difficult Client

There are some general indicators that you may be dealing with an individual who is, or may become, a difficult client. A few examples include:
  • a client who has gone through a number of lawyers and has not been satisfied with any of them;
  • a client who demands that his or her work take priority over all your other clients' work;
  • a client who makes unrealistic demands of you, your staff, or both;
  • a client who has unpaid accounts with other lawyers;
  • a client who has unrealistic demands regarding what may be achievable; or
  • a client who attempts to play ‘the lawyer”, constantly telling you how you should proceed, when such instructions are incorrect and/or inappropriate.
A difficult client may also be a fraud artist. If a client is making demands that push you out of your comfort or competence zone, you must assert control over the relationship. Remain cognisant of your professional obligations as articulated in the Law Society Act, 1996, in the Rules and the Code of Conduct. Think about what the client is asking you to do, and assess whether the client's conduct (coupled with the request) is an indicator of fraud.
Do not underestimate the ingenuity of fraud artists who may target you simply because you operate outside the safety net of a large firm environment. Note particularly the requirements of rule 3.2-7 of the Code of Conduct and its commentary.  A lawyer must not engage in any activity that the lawyer knows or ought to know assists in or encourages any dishonesty, crime or fraud, including a fraudulent conveyance, preference or settlement.  A lawyer should make reasonable inquiries to obtain information about the client and the subject matter of the retainer if the lawyer has any suspicions or doubts.
A lawyer has a duty to be on guard against becoming the tool or dupe of an unscrupulous client or of persons associated with such a client and, in some circumstances, may have a duty to make inquiries. For example, a lawyer should make inquiries of a client who:
  • seeks the use of the lawyer's trust account without requiring any substantial legal services from the lawyer in connection with the trust matters, or
  • promises unrealistic returns on their investment to third parties who have placed money in trust with the lawyer or have been invited to do so.
You must be vigilant to avoid being the vehicle for fraud and you should strive to stay current with the types of frauds that are being perpetrated on the legal community and the public at large.