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BigLaw: How to Work With Very Difficult Clients

By Liz Kurtz | Monday, June 22, 2009


Originally published on June 15, 2009 in our free BigLaw newsletter.

Back in the days when lawyers still had jobs, you could listen in on virtually any group of summer associates, law students, or recently minted attorneys, and hear them chattering excitedly about the great aspects of the position they had (or hoped to have) landed at a law firm. "Free dinner if you're there after 7!" "Car service if you stay past 8!" "Tons of client contact!"

Ask a second or third year associate about these "perks," and they'll tell you that they are, as a general matter, euphemisms for much less glamorous circumstances, like working really, really late. Or at least that's what they would tell you if you could find them: they are probably too busy hiding from clients. In other words, beware: as a young lawyer, having "lots" of client contact may look like a gift when it is, in fact, a Trojan horse.

A Sharp Pain in the …

"Heather," now a senior associate, experienced the joys of client contact in her first year of practice, when she was assigned to work on (what seemed to be) a small, straightforward case. Mr. Sharp, the client, was a wealthy man who had brought a fair amount of business to the firm over the years, including several large, complicated matters. Although the current matter had arisen from a personal dispute between Mr. Sharp and his neighbors (and was tiny by comparison), she saw it as a great opportunity and was thrilled when she was given a fair amount of responsibility. She dove in, embracing the task at hand and familiarizing herself with everything about the case … except the client. Although the partner seemed pleased with her work, he was reluctant to allow her to communicate with Mr. Sharp.

"In hindsight," Heather recalls, "I was warned. Although I was basically handling the case, the partner didn't want me to talk to the client directly." His explanation? "He kept making vague statements about how the client could be 'somewhat difficult,' and 'a lot to handle,'" Heather says. "I should have listened."

For a while, the partner acted as an intermediary: Heather wrote down anything she would have asked the client, emailed it to the partner, and waited for a response. Not surprisingly, this approach quickly became unworkable, running up billables and adding a cumbersome time delay at every turn — especially when the partner was traveling or preoccupied with other matters. Finally, with a sigh, the partner handed Heather Mr. Sharp's number and wished her luck.

During their first telephone conversation, Heather found Mr. Sharp crusty, but charming. "He was a little gruff," she remembers, "but it was sort of endearing." The next time they spoke, Heather was prepared for some mild grumpiness and light carping, but nothing too weighty. But, she says, "he started with a long-winded tirade about something irrelevant. About 20 minutes into it, he asked me if I was married or in a monogamous relationship." Caught off guard, she stammered that she was not. "It was as if I had pulled a lever and opened the floodgates," she laments. "Mr. Sharp spent the next ten minutes lecturing me about the moral failures of loose women who do things like 'date' and 'work.' I didn't know what to say, so I think I just sat there, openmouthed, and waited for him to finish."

Heather was offended by Mr. Sharp's outburst, but not quite sure what to do about it. Would she look like a crybaby if she mentioned it to the partner? She wanted to show him that she could handle anything, even a cranky client. She wanted to remain resolute in the face of adversity. She wanted to slay the dragon.

Heather said nothing, and continued to talk to Mr. Sharp regularly, though with increasing dread. As Mr. Sharp became more comfortable with her, he also became more comfortable sharing his outspoken opinions, many of which were sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, or distinguished by a unique combination of multiple bigoted ideas. "In some ways," Heather says, "he was very egalitarian."

In addition to his offensive views, Mr. Sharp was also an unforgiving boss. He demanded that Heather research issues that he considered crucial, and was brutally critical when she could not come up the answers he wanted. He wanted unimportant tasks done immediately, and would often call her multiple times in a day to check her progress. In short, Mr. Sharp was driving her insane.

Heather finally told the partner that she found Mr. Sharp, um, … incredibly difficult. An unmistakably weary look crossed his face. "Well, I don't really have time to referee any personal conflicts between you and Mr. Sharp," he told her. "He's an important client, so do your best, and don't antagonize him." Before fleeing, the partner added "besides, he's just a grumpy old coot! How bad could it be?" As the partner's words floated from his retreating form, Heather tried to steel herself. Maybe it wasn't all that bad … right?

So Long and Thanks for All the Billables

A few weeks later, Heather participated in a conference call with the partner, Mr. Sharp, and local counsel, who was being used for an out-of-state filing. Mr. Sharp's usual tirade began around the fifteen-minute mark, growing more vituperative as the seconds ticked by. Thinking of the closeness she had developed with Sharp during the many, similar tirades she had endured recently, she decided that she might be just the person to redirect things. When he paused for breath, she gently suggested that they talk about some upcoming filing deadlines.

The pause turned into an awkward silence. Then Mr. Sharp spoke, his voice dripping with contempt. "Don't you ever interrupt me," he snarled at her. "Do you hear me?"

"I apologize," Heather said, "but I think we need to address the …"

Mr. Sharp would have none of it. He demanded an answer to his question. Heather, frozen, waited for someone to interject. The line was eerily silent. Finally, after a few more epithets, Mr. Sharp announced that he did not want her on the conference call. Unsure what else to do, Heather said a quick goodbye and clicked off. As she sat in her office waiting to hear from the partner, she had the distinct feeling that she had been sent to bed without supper.

When the partner finally stopped by her office to chat, she knew instantly that Mr. Sharp had gotten the best of her. The partner explained that, while he was aware of how difficult Sharp could be, he was also The Client, and, well … The Client is always right. Heather was taken off the case.

Know When to Hold 'Em and When to Fold 'Em

So: what can an associate do, when faced by a client as difficult as Mr. Sharp? Heather points out that, as a preliminary matter, the notion of "success" may prove impossible when it comes to dealing with a Mr. Sharp.

"Sometimes," she says, "the best you hope for is damage control." More importantly, she says, you need to be aware of how dangerous a client like Mr. Sharp can be for the associate involved.

"If you have an incredibly difficult client, you will probably work your butt off, and still end up looking bad," Heather posits. "You don't want to run crying to a partner every time the client ruffles your feathers. But you do want to make sure that you keep memos to file, so that you can contemporaneously document what's going on."

And, she says, sometimes you have to know when to walk away. "If you really feel that your difficult relationship with a client is hindering your ability to work on a case, or if your role as a figurative punching bag has precluded the possibility of a productive lawyer-client relationship, you need to go to a partner or mentor and explain your situation. No associate wants to turn down work, or admit defeat, or suggest he is incapable of rising to the task at hand, so there is a natural impulse to keep drilling away at it, and not to give up. But when you're dealing with a Mr. Sharp, you it may be better to jump off an impending train wreck before the moment of impact."

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Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management
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