8 types of clients you must manage in your legal practice
Early in my legal career, while practicing in Jamaica, a client kept me on my toes with a criminal law matter. It was clear I had not been given any written instructions about a specific part of the defense’s case as I addressed the judge, and that the client was growing increasingly upset as I spoke. A very senior lawyer sitting beside me passed me a note that simply said, “Get that in writing. You must always protect yourself.”
A YourABA newsletter in February shared a blog post from the Center for Professional Responsibility titled “8 signs of a potentially untrustworthy client.”
It brought me back to that experience and reminded me of the different types of clients I have encountered throughout my career.
How a client behaves may not only negatively impact a firm and its lawyers: Untrustworthy clients may also pose a professional responsibility risk. I’ve developed some tips to manage the untrustworthy client as well as other difficult clients.
1. The helicopter client
I faced this type of client early in my practice, and my inexperience made it difficult to set boundaries. These clients seemed to want to monopolize my time, but that would mean ignoring many other clients. They usually called or showed up at the office without an appointment or at very inconvenient times, like when I was rushing into court, during another client appointment or late in the evening, remarking they were just passing by, saw my car in the parking lot and wanted to update me on something. Technology has drawn everyone closer and made it difficult to draw a clear line between professional and personal time.
Tips: This client requires boundaries from the get-go, which means having some difficult conversations. Advise this client that appointments are the rule, but of course emergencies and life challenges are the exceptions.
2. The laissez-faire client
These clients never meet deadlines, don’t show up for meetings, never contact you before a court date and rarely respond to your communications. Are these avoidant clients simply bracing themselves for possible bad case outcomes?
A colleague recounted to me that they had a client who did not respond to letters, emails or phone calls. All of this was documented in the lawyer’s records. The client made a bar complaint stating the lawyer had not provided enough information about the case, and the lawyer was now refusing to refund fees.
The lawyer provided the bar with significant proof about all the communications sent to the client as well as information about work done on the client’s behalf. The lawyer was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Tips: Document all your efforts with these clients. Keep track of all correspondence sent to them by every means; record your efforts to meet court-stipulated deadlines; chronicle all steps to meet statute-of-limitation deadlines; and make sure your efforts to respond to requests for evidence are logged (a grim reality for immigration lawyers).
3. The lying client
What do you do when a client denies allegations in a criminal case—or any other type of case—despite the proverbial smoking gun (that wasn’t planted)? As a junior lawyer, I was initially unsure of how to handle this.
I had a client who vehemently denied allegations. We even agreed to a DNA sample, and when it came back, it proved the prosecution’s case. A quick guilty plea and a strenuous plea in mitigation had to follow.
Tips: One of my mentors in Jamaicasuggested asking the client why the prosecution would have those specific allegations against them. Sometimes their version helps only in mitigation, sometimes it gives a fuller picture, and sometimes the evidence is insurmountable. At that point, our clients must be advised that our job is not to lie for them, but we can do a great mitigation plea.
4. The ‘help with a single area’ client
I learned this one the hard way in my immigration practice. The client came in asking about a specific family member benefit. The work was done. Soon after, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asked questions about other family members, but I had not asked to see copies of those documents. If I had asked more probing questions, I would have been able to try to resolve issues earlier, which would have meant that their benefit would not have been delayed.
Tips: When the client declares you “only need to sign off as the lawyer,” you must advise the client that because you are signing off as their lawyer, you must check everything and ask questions, even uncomfortable questions. You also need to see any document that they have previously submitted.
5. The ‘I read all your documents’ client
Many clients are not going to check through all the documents you provide to them. Sometimes we do not check as thoroughly as we should. I have had the experience of asking my clients to check the documents I drafted, and they respond that they have and all are correct. Because I am a sucker for pain and suffering, I sometimes recheck those same documents one more time and find basic errors on my part.
Tips: Double- and triple-check your documents, and don’t rely on your client’s review of them.
6. The ‘great expectations’ client
There is an adage: “The client doesn’t want to know which law school you went to; they only want to hear if they are going to win.” Even if victory is near, a lawyer shouldn’t guarantee a win. Such assurances can expose the lawyer to various ethical issues and violations.
Tips: Instead, highlight the positives in their case and encourage them to find additional evidence to shore up weak areas to help promote their chances of success.
7. The manners client
In Jamaica, it is a tradition to call the opposing lawyer in any matter—civil or criminal—“my learned friend,” a mark of respect and civility. A client advised me he was firing me because I had called his soon-to-be ex-wife’s lawyer “my learned friend.” Despite my explanation and assurances that I could represent him with vigor, I was fired.
Tips: We must advise our clients that civility is crucial to the practice of law. Strive to advise clients that open hostility or rudeness toward the other side might backfire. And after those clients go, you still will have to work with the same lawyers, judges and—potentially—witnesses!
8. The best type of client
They have everything in order, are reasonable people and appreciate your efforts on their behalf, win or lose. We could all use more of these, and so we can but dream.
This story was originally published in the December 2022-January 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Strategies for Success: 8 types of clients you must manage in your legal practice.”
Nadine C. Atkinson-Flowers is admitted to the bar in Missouri and Jamaica. She practices virtually and in real time, and she focuses on U.S. immigration and Jamaican law. Her email address is [email protected]
This column originally appeared on ABAJournal.com on Aug. 17. It reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.