The needy client is a multifaceted and challenging customer, usually driven by the forces of overwhelming anxiety. Although they appear in different guises, your rudimentary needy client is easy to recognize based on the unusually large number of phone calls, emails, unannounced visits — and perhaps even “coincidental” run-ins at your local coffee shop.
It would be one thing if the needy client was prepared to reward you handsomely for your attentiveness, but often the needy client is also the first to complain about the size of the bill.
How to Handle the Legal Leg-Clinger
So, once you’ve decided to accept a needy client’s business, how do you lessen the client’s excess anxiety and transform the legal leg-clinger into a healthier state of independence?
Invest lots of listening time at the first meeting. Early on in the relationship, you must invest a solid chunk of time listening to every word, both relevant and irrelevant, the needy client (and his stepbrother’s cousin’s attorney) has to say. No interruptions, no re-focusing, no advice-giving. Just listening. Why? By allowing needy clients to talk until their talker is talked out, you will give them great relief.
Hot tip: Schedule this conversation at the end of the day so there is no time pressure from other appointments. (Afterward, you can leave the office and treat yourself to watching five recorded episodes of “Glee.”)
A couple of days after the first meeting, consider sending a “needy client care package.” This care package consists of two items:
- A handwritten note acknowledging and thanking the client for your previous conversation. To be effective, this note must contain at least one legal detail and one personal detail from the client’s story.
- A short, “routine” document containing contact information, a brief list of case issues discussed and, most importantly, a simple statement that diplomatically translates phone calls, emails, unannounced visits and those “surprise” run-ins at the coffee shop directly into money to be deposited in your bank account.
Feel free to send an updated care package as often as needed, always including the short statement about how attorney time equals client money.
Think about giving the needy client a job. Nothing more effectively eases anxiety than getting these clients to work on a specific part of their case. Put the client in charge of creating a timeline, a pie chart, a phone tree, a research memo on the first use of the widget — anything that provides some assistance to you while also allowing the client to exercise case-related energy in a positive direction. Often all it takes is one such task for needy clients to realize they would much rather allow you to do your job solo.
Keep it clear and simple! An excellent attorney tool — one that benefits the needy client in particular — is the ability to craft and deliver simple, sincere and consistent statements to the client about the case. Clients hire you because they are unable to do what you do. Combine that with a needy personality, and the result may be an individual who is confused, resentful or passive-aggressive.
In the face of these emotions, you must respond to your client with simplicity, sincerity and consistency. Here are some examples:
- “You’re right, Mr./Ms. Client, what they did to you wasn’t fair. Our motion will address this issue loud and clear. I will send you a draft of the motion on Wednesday.”
- “You’re right, Mr./Ms. Client, we are stuck with two bad choices and we have to pick one. At Thursday’s meeting we will create an action plan to turn these bad choices into something better. I’m looking forward to seeing you then.”
- “You did the right thing, Ms./Mr. Client. The only thing we can do now is wait and see how the other side responds. It’s hard to play the waiting game, but let me carry this burden for you. Take some time for yourself this weekend and put this out of your mind as much as you can.”
If a needy client pushes you to change your story or elaborate, do not join in this off-roading adventure! Stick to your message. Don’t muddy the waters with additional information or facts they can pick apart.
The truth is that successfully dealing with needy clients is more about emotion than logic. If you can master communicating with the needy client, however, often that client will transform into one of your biggest fans and referrals for future business. And that’s well worth the effort.
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.