Set Boundaries: The Angry Client (Part 1 of 9)

“Happy clients are all alike; every unhappy client is unhappy in one’s own way.” (Not Tolstoy)

This is the first in a series of articles inspired from Justice Carole Curtis’s Dealing with the Difficult Client (written when she was a lawyer). One of our most popular downloads, the article covers 9 kinds of difficult clients and how you can work with them. Let’s start with the angry client.

An angry client can take its toll on your ability to practice. Seasoned lawyers can likely recall their most angry clients by name and recite what happened and how. It’s not a happy memory and accumulating such memories makes it that much more difficult to practice. Learn how to work with an angry client, and, knowing your limits, when to stop working with an angry client.

An angry client is one that treats you and your staff in an angry or hostile manner on a regular basis. But a client that is always unhappy is not necessarily a client that is always unhappy with you. I worked with brain-injured clients and clients with mental disorders that treated my staff and I poorly – but I don’t blame their behaviour. Other clients may be angry at circumstances in their lives which have nothing to do with you. Nonetheless, this anger can be re-directed at you. Regardless of the reason for the anger, if your client treats you in a hostile manner, this is not appropriate and you should draw clear boundaries in the lawyer-client relationship.

If the reason for the anger is clearly something you can do something about, then de-escalate the situation. But if the source of anger is clearly out of control, you are not a therapist. Exploring a client’s roots of anger is not your role. Allow the client to vent for a short time. Then make it clear that it is unacceptable in a professional relationship. If the client does not calm down, cancel the meeting and book another time.

If the situation really calls for it, calmly suggest that a therapist would be better equipped to deal with the hostility. To this end, it is helpful to keep a referral sheet at reception for clients in need of social or other services, including telephone numbers and addresses. This is especially helpful for lawyers that frequently deal with clients under high levels of stress, such as poverty lawyers, family lawyers, criminal lawyers, and personal injury lawyers.

It is important that the very first time a client treats you angrily, you respond by saying that it is inappropriate. Boundaries should be drawn early and your response should always be consistent. If you have already allowed a client to treat you in a hostile manner on a regular basis, it is that much harder to change the nature of the relationship (but better late than never).

You can also bet that if the client is treating you poorly, your staff is probably being treated worse, as they are in a weaker power position. Train your staff to respond to anger the same way you do.

Finally, the old maxim to “know thyself” applies here. We all have different tolerance ranges. Know what yours is and do not let a client push you beyond it. If you go beyond what you are capable of tolerating, you may burn out. If a client refuses to take it down a notch, you may be better off terminating the retainer, while keeping in mind the Rules of Professional Conduct. The loss of one client is better than the loss of your practice.

Ian Hu (@IanHuLawpro)


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