Clients in the throes of divorce generally do not project the best version of themselves. Some behave like overwrought toddlers who missed their naptime: They whine, lash out, reverse course, and demand constant attention. Some behave like this because it is simply their nature—an unfortunate way to navigate life—but mostly it’s because of the stress of their current situation. As a family law paralegal, I have seen it all.
Whether their behavior is a result of their personality or their situation, a little compassion and understanding can go a long way.
If a difficult client does slip through, what’s the best way to deal with them?
Difficult behaviors can often be attributed to anxiety. Keep your clients in the loop by calendaring time once a week or biweekly to speak with them. Letting clients know that you’re thinking about them and that they matter will alleviate some of their anxiety.
Acknowledge the client’s feelings and frustrations while gently refocusing them on the task at hand. When a client sobs on the phone about how long their case is taking, say, “It sounds like you’re having a really difficult time right now. I’m sorry you’re going through that. Finishing your financial disclosures may lighten some of your worries.”
Keep a virtual paper trail. After a phone call with a client, memorialize your conversation with a quick email. This is not only a “CYA”, but also a reminder to your client (and you) of your discussion and any pending action items.
For those clients who want to speak with you on a daily basis even when there’s nothing going on, don’t be afraid to let their call roll to voicemail. Respond to them with an email, acknowledging their call and setting up a time to speak the following day.
Of course, the best way to deal with a difficult client is to avoid having them as a client in the first place. Vet new clients carefully. Research if they’re involved in multiple lawsuits; if they were rude to the receptionist or intake specialist; and listen to how they refer to others during your initial consult: Is everyone else the “bad” guy? Are they a perpetual victim? If so, politely decline the case and refer them to someone else.
If a client moves from being difficult to abusive, it’s time to alert the attorney or office manager about the situation. Most law firms’ retainer agreements have a clause that abusive behavior by a client is grounds to terminate the contract. Asking the attorney or office manager to step in to remind the client of the agreement may be sufficient to stop the behavior.
Finally, while we cannot change the behavior of others, we can manage our emotional reactions. Keeping your cool, sense of perspective, and sense of humor will help you handle the most difficult clients and situations.
About the author:
Karin L. Buckley, Vice-Chair of BASF’s Paralegal Section, is a family law paralegal at Winter & Ross who uses her life experiences from her former careers in television and teaching to keep her cool when dealing with ornery clients (and attorneys).