Interlock Member Assistance Program

Dealing with difficult people: clients, counsel & colleagues

by Nancy Payeur, Regional Director, Interlock

Client - He's the most challenging client I've ever worked with . fired his last three lawyers, his last payment was three months late . he calls and leaves sarcastic messages on my voicemail. He's rude with our support staff . expects me to be immediately available at all times . it goes on and on. Somehow I keep getting demanding people in my life, and it sure makes my days miserable. But what can you do when you need the billable hours?

Counsel - This counsel is known to be difficult. She does a lot of showboating in court to impress her clients. Makes all kinds of ridiculous appeals and objections, which just delays things. It becomes very draining trying to deal with someone like that. And yet she's very successful, so you know she's going to be around and you'll eventually need to work with her. Certainly takes the joy out of life!

Colleague - My partner used to be a friend, but after two years of working together, I can no longer say that. Choosing to set up shop together was a really bad call on my part. He's very controlling, questions my decisions on files regularly, always giving unwanted and what I see as unnecessary advice. Plus he's so unpredictable - his moods are up and down. One day he's Mr. Nice Guy, the next he's tearing a strip off our legal assistant. We've gone through three in the last year, and it's miserable to be at the office these days. I try to keep a low profile.


What do these situations have in common? Simple. All involve difficult people. And the narrators imply these must be endured.


In fact, often the most difficult part of dealing with obnoxious people is moving away from a victim mentality to seeing yourself as having choices. There are few perfect choices, but most are preferable to tolerating the intolerable.

Difficult clients

When life is so short, why are lawyers seduced into working with difficult, unreasonable and obnoxious people? A multitude of reasons, some irrational: fantasies (I'll do it differently, better than other lawyers, and will turn it all around), a passion for the legal issue on the file, immediate pressures to generate billable hours and lack of confidence in being able to generate new business if difficult clients are turned away. Or it may be that a lawyer simply hasn't stopped to make a conscious decision about whether or not to accept a client.

Most lawyers do have latitude in determining whom they will serve and how they will work with people. It all starts with the initial retainer — which is key to providing any type of professional service.

You need to communicate with potential clients about the service you can realistically provide and set parameters around how you will work together. This includes a discussion of fee structures and billing requirements. Most of the time, clients are reasonable people and you don't need to state the obvious. When you know you are dealing with a difficult person, however, you need to make the implicit explicit and not take anything - like sensible behaviour - for granted. When you are aware of someone's negative patterns, remember the maxim: the best predictor of future behaviours is the past. Keep expectations grounded in reality.

Develop a personal "Plan B" for the 20% minority who have the potential to be unreasonable. This framework should be in place and kick in as needed, and includes signed fee agreements, prompt billing and follow-up on overdues, work suspended on the file until fees have been paid and regular consultation with a colleague skilled at setting limits.

If you're worried about your ability to bring in new clients, address that issue directly. There are many resources available to assist you with business development skills. Consider, for instance, university and community college courses in marketing and business development, Toastmasters groups, service clubs, professional organizations and more experienced colleagues who have grown their practices successfully.

Keep in mind that serving difficult clients has associated costs. They can end up being a drain on you and your co-workers, in time and emotional energy, as well as psychic angst and general wear and tear! Assess up front which types of difficult people are within your "workable" range and which need to be "fired" and referred elsewhere.

A warning: some clients will be so shocked at your denying their request for service, they may readily agree to follow your terms and conditions. Setting clear parameters at the outset can make all the difference; when it doesn't, you need to follow through with your original decision.

When opposing counsel are difficult

A whole different set of issues are at stake here.

First question: How bad is the behaviour? How much can you ignore, deflect or diffuse? If counsel's behaviour doesn't amount to a matter of professional conduct, but is nevertheless interfering with your ability to be effective, are you able to discuss your concerns directly? If you decide to go this route, make sure the feedback you provide is specific and behaviourally descriptive, and that you remain polite and factual. Avoid any kind of pejorative language or labels. Clearly outline the changes you are requesting, and thank the person for hearing you out. Avoid engaging in argument or debate. Ask opposing counsel to think over your feedback and keep the meeting short. Keep and date your notes on the conversation.

If this is too risky, and you don't trust that someone is at all receptive or you think he or she might use the conversation against you somehow, what are some other options?

One option is to consult with a trusted associate who is aware of the person's behaviour and reputation, and whose advice you trust. In talking through such situations with a colleague - or another neutral third party - the solution can become clearer. Avoid consulting with someone who just agrees with you. This type of listener is sympathetic, reinforces your impressions and adds personal experiences and complaints to the mix. Such "ain't it awful" conversations are supportive, and that may be what you need initially. If that is the only kind of help you get, though, you could end up doing nothing and remain stuck in the problem.

Another option is to correspond in writing only where possible, to protect yourself and your client's interests. Most importantly, you need to avoid investing too much energy in the situation. Disengaging emotionally is a useful skill for dealing with all kinds of obnoxious behaviours. You may refocus your energy most constructively by thoroughly preparing your case and ensuring you do the best job possible for your client.

When colleagues are difficult

Dealing with a difficult colleague, especially a partner, can be tough, and probably involves both short and long-term solutions. In the short term, you need to have the "fireside chat" with your partner, giving feedback on the disruptive behaviours and asking him or her to stop.

Over the long term, some soul-searching and a thorough assessment of the situation is in order. Is the situation salvageable? If not, should you force yourself to live forever with one bad decision? This has financial and professional implications and requires an investment of money, time, energy, and planning - i.e., searching for another position, dissolving a partnership, looking for an alternate partnership, setting up solo or whatever you decide is the next logical step. Take your time, and make sure you apply what you've learned from the experience to your planning process.

The sad reality is that, no matter where you go, there will be difficult people. Some responses inadvertently encourage, reinforce and allow such behaviour to flourish. Others make it clear you will not be part of the dance.

Last, but not least …

You always have the option of talking things over with one of the counsellors at Interlock, which provides the Member Assistance Program. Interlock's counselling services are professional, neutral, confidential and available at no cost to Law Society members and their immediate families.

To access services, call:

1-800-663-9099 (Toll-free)

604-431-8200 (Lower Mainland)

Further reading

Tongue Fu! How to Deflect, Disarm, and Defuse Any Verbal Conflict. Sam Horn, St. Martin's Griffin, 1996.

201 Ways to Deal With Difficult People: A Quick-Tip Survival Guide. Alan Axelrod & Jim Holtje, McGraw-Hill, 1997.