How do you deal with a difficult client?
Don’t be ridiculous: I’m not a difficult client! You’re a difficult lawyer!
I’m pretty busy. So how many drafts of your brief do you think I want to review?
One, reflecting your very best work? Or six, with each version fixing a typo or massaging the language in footnote three, so that I can see your next iteration?
When do you think I want to see your draft?
The morning it’s due, so that I won’t have a chance even to read the thing and, if I manage to read it, you won’t have time to make corrections? Or three days before it’s due, so we have time to make the brief right?
Do you think I want to circle all the typos and cite-checking errors in the draft you send to me? Believe me, I do not want to do this. But I can’t help myself: I spent two years entombed in the sub-basement of the library at The University of Michigan cite-checking articles and imprinting the Bluebook on my brain. I’d be delighted not to notice your errors, but I don’t have that capacity. This stuff is hard-wired into my very core.
How about your run-on sentences, use of the passive voice, and other grammatical and stylistic errors?
You think I want to fix your mistakes? No way. Don’t make ’em.
But, if you make mistakes, don’t ask me to overlook ’em. I spent 25 years working at law firms creating error-free work. If I just skim a draft brief, I’ll notice obvious mistakes. And, if I notice them, I’ll circle them. I’m doing you a favor, for heaven’s sake: I’m not a difficult client; you’re a difficult lawyer!
Do you think I want to nag you about the stuff that’s sitting on your desk?
No way! I pester only because I’ve learned from long experience that if you ask the average person to do something, he doesn’t. When I write a week later asking where you stand on Project X, and you tell me that you haven’t yet started it (but you appreciate the reminder), you’ve earned yourself nagging for the next few years, until you convince me that you’re responsible.
You think I want to do this? You’ve gotta be kidding! If you say that you’re going to do something, then do it. I’m not difficult; you are!
Do you think I won’t notice when you substitute out the associate who actually knows our case and substitute in some new lawyer who doesn’t know bupkis about our situation? How am I supposed to avoid noticing that? I’m getting emails from some new person. I’m seeing bills that record endless days of “file review” as the new person struggles to get up to speed.
If you want to change lawyers on the case, ask in advance and tell me why it’s necessary! I’m being logical, not difficult.
When your estimate of the cost of defending a case changes, how should you handle it? Wait until the end of our corporate quarter and then say that we should book a multimillion dollar expense reserve? Or tell me long in advance that this is likely to occur, so we can decide how best to deal with it?
What’s the best way to tell me about the result in one of our litigation matters?
“We just got a decision in the Trinculo case. I’ve attached a copy. Go read it yourself, and figure out whether we won or lost and what the implications are.”
Or maybe by a phone call? Or an email that says: “Good news! We just won the Trinculo case. The court rejected arguments A and B, but accepted argument C. This order is final, and plaintiff has X days to appeal. I’ve attached a copy of the decision for your convenience, in case you’d like to read more. If you’d like to talk about this, please call me (at 212-212-1212) any time later today.”
How about reporting on less significant events? Do you think yours is the only matter for which I’m responsible? Depending on the company for which I work, I may have hundreds — or thousands, or tens of thousands — of potential or actual litigation matters under my supervision. If your email about the Stephano deposition says, “We just deposed Stephano, and it went great,” then I’ll write back: “Who are you? Who’s Stephano? And how did you get my email address?”
Am I wrong to ask for a one-sentence reminder of what the heck we’re talking about, a sentence or two about the key facts we were hoping to learn from this witness, and a short description of whatever you’re trying to convey?
How do you deal with a difficult client?
Be a responsible lawyer!
It’s not my fault; it’s yours!
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.