Demanding Clients: Coping Tips for Corporate Counsel
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As a corporate lawyer, you come across a variety of clients. These clients may face similar legal problems, yet have widely varying communication styles and expectations. Any attorney who has been practicing law for a long enough time has encountered demanding clients.
Demanding clients are those that set unrealistic deadlines, want excessive attention, or insist on absolute perfection. It is not easy to deal with demanding clients, but there are ways to make the experience more bearable. Effective relationship management can result in a more pleasant work experience and satisfactory outcome for both the lawyer and client alike.
Be Clear with Demanding Clients About Expectations
Lawyers should put their clients first, but lawyers are usually juggling a number of clients at once. A good lawyer will make each client feel like they are the lawyer’s only client. Difficult clients will take this to the extreme. They think of themselves as the center of the universe, and that their lawyer should be available to cater to their every need.
This can create a potentially dangerous situation for the attorney. Demanding clients can cause the lawyer to devote more time than warranted on their matter or to excessively revising work product. Open and regular communication can help the lawyer better understand and navigate around the client’s expectations.
It is important to level set the expectations of a difficult client. Managing expectations is a universal skill, and one that is particularly essential in an attorney-client relationship.
First, attempt to understand the source of the client’s anxiety. There could be a variety of reasons why the client is demanding work product on a short timeline or fixates on achieving a particular outcome. Perhaps the client is facing pressure from other coworkers. The client might also lack confidence in the lawyer’s ability to meet specified deadlines, and therefore might be setting false deadlines in anticipation.
Lay Out Realistic Timelines
Some clients may demand that the lawyer draft complex documents on short notice. Preparing documents with quick turnaround times is a routine part of being a corporate lawyer. However, some clients simply set unrealistic deadlines in light of the complexity of a given task. Furthermore, they do not care that you have other clients that may similarly be demanding work product on short notice.
From the perspective of demanding clients, they are paying you a substantial amount of money and therefore expect high-quality work product in return. Producing a well-drafted agreement, contract, or other document type takes time to do properly. As a lawyer, exceling under time pressure while simultaneously paying careful attention to detail is a tough balancing act. Yet demanding clients will have little mercy when the lawyer either fails to meet their rush deadlines or do poor quality work.
To deal with a client setting unrealistic deadlines, it is important to clearly explain the amount of time realistically that needs to be allocated to tackling the client’s unique task. It is also helpful to have an open line of communication with the client to determine whether the time urgency is actually urgent. For example, perhaps the client is hoping to IPO as soon as possible in anticipation of a market correction. Or perhaps they feel the need to enter into a merger agreement quickly before a competitor can enter the scene. Sometimes a client’s sense of urgency is driven by incorrect assumptions or does not take into account certain timing considerations.
Understand the Client’s Level of Legal Knowledge
Clients have different levels of sophistication when it comes to grasping the underlying legal issues. The approach to communicating with a demanding client that a lawyer takes should take this into consideration.
Clients well-versed in the law are often quite familiar with different legal documents and concepts. They may have substantial experience reading particular types of contracts or agreements. Therefore, the client can comfortably use legal jargon in discussions with the client. This type of sophisticated client is more likely to form their own opinions about legal decisions and want to guide the lawyer toward their viewpoint. The lawyer will need to be judicious in picking the best legal direction while also making the client feel like their opinions are being taken into consideration.
On the other hand, an early-stage startup client may need the attorney to explain legal concepts in a simplified manner. Such clients that are not as well-versed in the law may rely more heavily on the lawyer’s judgment. In these situations, the lawyer will have to take more leadership in selecting a course of legal action.
Personal Boundaries Are Essential for Demanding Clients
Demanding clients may use pressure tactics that involve blurring professional and personal boundaries. When a client oversteps personal boundaries, the attorney needs to reinstate those boundaries. For example, the client might attempt to text message or communicate with their attorney over personal social media accounts. A lawyer can politely redirect the client by responding to a text message over their work email.
A difficult client might also direct emails to you on Saturday evenings that require a response. Such clients seem to want your attention around the clock. One way a lawyer can deal with this without appearing unresponsive is to reply with a short message such as “Thanks for the email, I will revert on Monday.”
Accountability is key to maintaining strong relationships. It is important to check in on a regular basis to make sure goals are being met. If the outcome deviates or plans get derailed, the lawyer should take responsibility as appropriate. An attorney that holds himself or herself accountable displays humility and instills the client’s trust. Accountability also is a tool for managing issues and expectations.