If You Agree to Take on a Challenging Client

If you decide to accept the client matter, confirm it in writing. Be clear in the letter whether you accept the representation and set out the terms of the retainer in a retainer agreement or in an engagement letter. These agreements are essential to set out the terms of your representation and compensation, the client’s obligations and expectations, and circumstances that govern termination of the relationship. This is particularly important and, in fact, required if you are entering a contingency fee arrangement. (See Code, Rule 3.6-2.)

The following is a list of good practice habits you should apply to all clients but will be particularly helpful in challenging client relationships. 

  • Be direct and clear as to how the relationship is going to work. Clearly set realistic expectations with the client. You may wish to vary these expectations depending on your workload, and the type of client you are working with. Put the structure of the relationship in writing and stick to the parameters you set.
  • Understand your role as the lawyer is to analyze the client’s situation, offer potential solutions, and advise of the possible consequences. When you remember this is your role as a lawyer, and make sure your client understands the limits of this role, you can avoid pitfalls including getting emotionally involved in a client’s case, acting too authoritatively with a client, and crossing ethical and professional boundaries with your clients. 
  • Document everything and confirm all your instructions with your client in writing. Proper documentation of all client conversations, advice, and recommendations will protect you from clients who are flaky, dissatisfied with their result, refuse to follow your advice, or are dishonest. If there is ever any question as to the quality of your work, you can rely on your notes. 
  • Be clear with your client and remain patient. Do not let a client’s anger, frustration, or domineering tendencies turn you into a difficult or unhappy lawyer. Draw clear lines and set expectations. Consistently and patiently enforce these expectations. It is also helpful if you include your staff and ensure that they also know what expectations you set with your clients, and any specific issues they may need to deal with. 
  • Communicate. Communicate consistently with your clients. Let them know what work has been done, and what is being done. If you need to enforce boundaries, communicate those boundaries to the client. Good and consistent communication can help a client feel more at ease about the work being done on their matter and helps them feel like their legal problem matters and is being addressed. 
  • Bill regularly in non-contingency fee arrangements. Send your clients regular invoices outlining what has been done on their file and what it costs them. Enforce regular payments. Regular billing helps clients understand how much work you are doing and can prevent frustration from building. It also helps you ensure that you get paid regardless of how satisfied a client will be with the end result of their issue. 
  • Know when to fold. In some relationships, there will come a time when there is no confidence or trust left between the parties. If this situation arises, you should recommend the client find another lawyer.