How To Deal with the Irascible Client
by Elisa Maloff Reiter
I graduated from SMU School of Law in 1983. Pre-laptop. Pre-email. Pre-Skype. In days of yore, the irascible client presented him or herself with:
1. Multiple phone calls.
2. Many epistles.
3. Unannounced visits.
4. Contact with support staff that bordered on obsessive, and grew to verbal abuse.
In 2013, thirty years after my graduation from law school, not much has changed. I remain a “beck and call” girl for many clients, who demand instant gratification. Available methods of contact may have changed with late night e-mail replacing letters or demands to Skype at 4 a.m. to accommodate a client’s schedule replacing unannounced visits, but the demands remain essentially the same. Balancing daily responsibility with the rigors of litigation may just push the average, reasonable, prudent person toward irascible. Consider the following in respecting the demands on your time, the client’s time, and keeping either of you from lurching toward cantankerous:
a. Listen carefully. Irascibility is most commonly a symptom of a deeper concern or issue. Clients often will reveal the underlying issue if you take the time, and make the effort, to listen carefully to their concerns.
b. Do not argue. Client contact is about communication, not confrontation.
c. Ask calm questions. Ascertain what can be done to identify real issues.
d. Respect the client's point of view. The litigant is likely stressed emotionally, financially and by the time demands of litigation. Needing a lawyer is, for many, an unusual experience fraught with many personal challenges.
e. Be leery of clients' requests to be a bookie. Practice law; do not quote odds or make guarantees just because you are asked.
f. Make appropriate referrals. A mental health professional may help counsel with the client, and keep them focused. A forensic accountant can, for instance, assist the client in tracing a separate property claim. And you are not necessarily the best or most appropriate lawyer for every client; sometimes another member of the Bar is better suited, for whatever reason, to help.
g. Give updates. Schedule conferences or dispatch email or other communication to assure that the client is up to date on the progress of the case. Regular communications are a cornerstone to a good client relationship and go a long way to reducing the likelihood that your client becomes irascible.
h. Empathize. Attempt to understand the client’s frustration and confusion—and ensure that you can show what you have done to assuage their concerns.
i. Measure your words. Even in the era of instant gratification, invoke the 24-hour rule, and do not immediately respond. Doing so may allow you to be, in the words of Warren Cole, “responsive and not reactive.” And remember that not every email requires a response.
j. Smile. Just like papa said, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
k. CYA. Document your file to reflect that what you are doing to keep up with and obviate your client’s concerns. Even better, send those updates to your client as part of your regular communications so that your client will know the efforts you are making to address his or her concerns.
l. Terminate. End the relationship if you cannot use the above steps to preserve and foster a solid working relationship with the client.
By following these steps, you hopefully can reduce the frequency of your experiences with irascible clients.
Elisa Maloff Reiter, Esq. is a solo practitioner, Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. She can be reached at all hours at email@example.com.