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Nobody enjoys dealing with aggressive clients, and some lawyers have the luxury of declining to represent them — a goal I heartily recommend. Sometimes, however, for myriad reasons, getting rid of these folks isn’t possible. In previous posts, I discussed how to use your physical environment to your advantage and how to handle the initial act of client hostility. Now let’s deal with setting boundaries and controlling the tone of your interactions with aggressive clients.
No matter what technique you use to deal with client aggression, you must be yourself and put your own, personal spin on it. A phony never gets any respect. Besides, the aggressive client is particularly good at sniffing out the fear barely masked by your unisex Calvin Klein cologne.
Once, during a coffee session following court, I overheard this bit of advice from a battle-scarred attorney nicknamed “The Hammer,” who had endured a lengthy and varied career and was well-known for taking no crap. When another attorney complained about being on the receiving end of repeated abuse from a particularly nasty client, The Hammer, who resembled a chain-smoking version of Clint Eastwood, crushed out his cigarette, narrowed his eyes and chuckled grimly, “What that client needs is a well-timed ‘Fuck you!’”
With all due respect to The Hammer — um, no thanks. Besides being inappropriate, I suspect this would never work for 99.99 percent of attorneys who do not resemble a chain-smoking Clint Eastwood bearing the nickname “The Hammer.”
The lesson is this: You must apply your own style and always be genuine.
Perhaps problem clients are respectful to you, but they interrupt your meetings by getting aggressive with another person in the room, whether their partner, friend or child. Not only is this behavior disruptive, it eats up everyone’s precious time and energy. A good way to end the sideline battle is to gently lift your hand in the international sign for stop, and say (in a friendly, calm tone), “I don’t listen to arguing in my office — it takes away too much of the time we have together. Let’s get back to the issue of X. Sound good?”
Usually, this is enough to redirect the client to the matter at hand and end the backseat bickering. If this doesn’t work and the squabbles continue, end the meeting and suggest reconvening once the topic has marinated a bit.
When clients begin to get hot, instead of matching their aggression, or one-upping or arguing with them, take your response in the opposite direction. Speak more quietly, slowly and concisely. By choosing ice over fire, you’re showing the aggressive client that you’re in control and that the client does not dictate the tone of the interaction.
What follows is an example of a recent complaint I handled. Important note: First, I spent about 15 minutes listening to the aggressive client vent with very minimal interruption, not even to correct gross misstatements. Once I sensed his venting was losing steam, we had the following conversation.
Aggressive Client (AC): Like I said, I’m being railroaded here! I can’t believe that the so-called attorney representing us doesn’t get the fact that this is a bullshit case. I know my rights and that stupid lawyer you supervise doesn’t get it.
Calm Lawyer (CL): I hear what you’re saying, and yes, you absolutely have rights. Mr. Do-Good has filed a motion on your behalf making that point.
AC: That’s not enough! This is taking way, way too long and my family is disgusted with it!
CL: I understand. It has taken a long time. Mr. Do-Good is committed to making sure everything in your family’s case is handled correctly with the best advocacy possible. That can take time.
AC: Harrumph! I know my legal rights and they’re being trampled on. I have rights!
CL: You’re at an advantage. Many people either don’t know their rights or they don’t understand the process. Your family is lucky to have you as their advocate, not everyone has such strong support. Clearly you care about your family a lot.
AC: Oh. Well, thanks, I guess …
CL: I’ll make sure Mr. Do-Good calls you tomorrow so you can further discuss the motion. And if you have any other problems, don’t hesitate to give me a call — that’s what I’m here for.
AC: Oh … okay.
When trying to create a working relationship with an aggressive client, don’t get bogged down with minor details like logical thinking and the law. In the example above, I absolutely disagreed that the family was being “railroaded” by a “bullshit case,” but it would have accomplished nothing to argue those points. Nor would it have helped to debate the exact nature of the “legal rights” the aggressive client wrongfully believed he possessed.
Highlight only the issues that matter and focus your efforts on what helps build the relationship and what advances the client’s case, while keeping logic games at a minimum.
Much of my advice goes against a lawyer’s very nature — our desire to be right, the reflex to fight back when attacked and the assumption that logic rules the world. Resist these temptations with aggressive clients and soon other lawyers will be referring all of their difficult clients to you (insert evil laughter here).
Ryan Sullivan has been a trial lawyer for almost 14 years, practicing exclusively indigent criminal defense. A speaker, writer and trainer, Ryan believes a sense of humor and the ability to frame events positively, combined with solid professional skills, leads directly to career and business success. Her experience working with and training others in challenging careers has given her the skills to manage the toughest customers, speak and present persuasively, and shine under stressful circumstances. Ryan and her husband have three children, three dogs and a home suspended in a perpetual state of DIY remodeling.
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