McDonough Logo

Confidential Consultation



Avoiding the Adversarial/Difficult Client

Avoiding the Adversarial/Difficult Client

Recently, we gave a lecture regarding dealing with the adversarial client. At the conclusion of the lecture, a number of participants came up to share some rather amusing client experiences. Difficulties with clients seemed to be a common theme. However, while these instances seemed funny in retrospect, at the time they were sources of much aggravation, costing quite a bit of the lawyer’s time—which as we all know is precious.[2] Equally costly is the energy and emotion required to deal with these clients. 

The comments we heard reinforced the importance of trying to avoid difficult clients in the first place. Generally, it is much easier to deflect a potential client than to withdraw from representing a client who has become adversarial or who has otherwise become a drain on your practice. Admittedly, the preceding sentence should be filed in the “easier said than done” column. But there are things you can do to try and avoid taking on a client who later will fill you with deep regret. 

Talk to the prospective client about matters other than their case. 

Ask the prospective client about their prior experience with lawyers. Did they generally have good experiences in prior dealings with attorneys? Have they had so many prior experiences that their sheer number raises a question of their being overly litigious or unreasonable? If they were dissatisfied, find out if they filed grievances or lawsuits against former counsel.  

Talk to the prospective client about all aspects of their situation.

Engage the prospective client about their prior experiences regarding the situation and/or case that they are consulting you about. If you are not the first attorney they have consulted with, inquire as to what occurred before they came to see you. Are they denigrating the lawyers they previously consulted and who refused their case? If they have had prior attorneys represent them on the instant matter, how many were there and why did the relationship(s) end? If they have had five prior attorneys and each one of them was at fault, we know who is at fault; tread carefully.   

Manage client expectations. 

Ask about their expectations regarding the matter they are consulting you on. Is it a soft tissue injury that they believe is worth $1,000,000, because their neighbor’s cousin’s psychic said so? Make sure they understand, and more importantly actually accept, the realities of their case as far as value and about how long and complex the process might be. If they have unreasonable expectations about the eventual result and the length of time the matter will take to conclude, no matter how well you do for them they will be dissatisfied at completion. Dissatisfaction often manifests itself as a grievance or fee dispute (or both). Dissatisfied clients do not refer others to you and will not be a repeat client.  

Go through the Statement of Client Rights and Responsibilities with them. While you have the statement posted in your waiting room, that doesn’t mean it’s been read and understood. Moreover, it is an excellent tool with which to open a dialogue with your potential client about how the attorney-client relationship will/should proceed. Essential to this discussion is to make sure the client understands the limits of the relationship and each party’s role. 

Keep the relationship professional. 

Creating and maintaining an arm’s length, the professional, attorney-client relationship will reduce client push back. If you are too casual, you run the risk of creating a client who will question every move you make, challenge you as to strategy and fees, and generally waste a lot of your time.  

Let the client know the type and frequency of communication. If you are going to charge for phone calls and office visits, make sure they know it. Even if you do not charge them, make sure they understand that you will not always be able to drop what you are doing to talk with them.  

The above is certainly not exhaustive. It is also not foolproof. Adversarial clients will get through despite being ever vigilant. But, if you can cut out just one such potential client, you will have saved yourself a lot of aggravation. If a client does become difficult, don’t try to change them or deal with them. Don’t let them hang around. They do not get better with age. Withdraw.


[1] A highly edited version of this article appeared in the April 2017 edition of The Nassau Lawyer  (Vol. 66, No. 8).

[2] Admit it. You thought we were going to say time is money. The fact is once spent, time is irreplaceable. Therefore it is far more important than money.