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Ask Eula Mae: How To Handle a Difficult Client

Posted By NALS Editorial Board, Monday, March 6, 2017

Dear Eula Mae:

Recently, our quiet office has had a series of nervous, disgruntled, and loud clients.  It shakes me up because I know my attorney really helps them, but my attorney has been on vacation for a week and some things are just moving a little slower.  Things will speed up and be completed when he returns.  I know I cannot say much to these clients because I am not an attorney, but they want me to.  They want some inside information and I really do not have that. I do not know what to do to handle these situations and it makes me uncomfortable.  I know my attorney wants me to be professional with the clients, but sometimes I just freeze when I know there is some action that could be taken to make it all better for the client.  Please help.

Steady in San Antonio
Dear Steady in San Antonio:

There will be many difficult clients in your career.  This response will only cover a few of them, but you will basically know how to deal with them.  If you can, talk with your attorney as soon as possible about how he or she wants you to handle these situations.  It is good to try to be prepared for such surprises. 

Sometimes there are criers.  This is usually in a divorce case and, really, it is not a good use of your attorney’s time to sit there with the client when all they do is cry, so that means you have the privilege.  There is not much you can say in this situation; however, it will really help the client if you will just sit with them, listen, and give them tissues.  It sounds like such a simple thing, and it is, because all anyone really wants is to be heard. 

Let’s say you answer the phone and the client is very upset about something that is taking longer than they expected.  The client is getting louder and louder and more angry, so what do you do?  The first thing, of course, is listen to them.  Let them vent, take notes, and say you will have the attorney call them back.  You know not to provide any advice because you are not an attorney.  In fact, “I am not an attorney” should be the first thing out of your mouth if you are pressed.  Follow this statement with, “I will immediately report your concerns to your attorney.”  See The Model Rules for Professional Conduct, Rule 5.3 Responsibilities Regarding Nonlawyer Assistance.  Remember, all the client really wants is to be heard.  Listen carefully and try to find out what they really want.  Say as little as you can—just listen. 

The client may say things you do not want to hear.  That information is told to you in confidence and the only other person who should know about it is their attorney.  Be kind to them because, for a client, the legal process is scary and stressful.  They want answers now and it is up to the attorney to help them.  The best thing you can give them is your attention.



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