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August 07, 2019

How to deal with difficult clients and situations (Part 1 of 2)

By Gary Richards, LegalBizDev

When clients are extremely demanding and/or require substantial write-offs, lawyers face difficult choices, especially in the current competitive marketplace. In many cases, lawyers choose the unhealthy option of simply suffering and complaining. This section outlines three healthier alternatives:

  1. Change the Situation
  2. Accept the Situation
  3. Leave the Situation

Obviously, all three of these choices involve financial risks which could negatively impact not only the individual lawyer, but also the entire firm. Therefore, we strongly recommend that the lawyer consult with appropriate colleagues and firm management and obtain their concurrence before taking any action.

Option 1: Change the Situation

If the situation is simply not acceptable, then the best first step could be to try to change it. The simplest and least controversial approaches are the ones that are strictly internal and do not require discussion with the client, such as applying legal project management to increase efficiency and client satisfaction, or brainstorming with others in your firm regarding steps you or your practice group could take.

If changing the situation requires negotiating with the client to change what they are doing, it is important to recognize that the simple act of talking to a client about how to improve things is not free of risk in the current marketplace, where competing firms are aggressively seeking new clients. Therefore, the way you pursue this option, or even whether you pursue it, depends on your relationship with the client and the business objectives of the firm. There are times when a large client with significant write-offs is far preferable to no client at all.

If you decide to pursue change with the client, you could consider calling in your firm’s managing partner or a practice group leader so that he or she can appeal directly to the client.  Obviously, however, that step must be taken very cautiously if at all, since escalating the problem could backfire.

If you wish to handle this yourself, you could begin from the script below. Even if the client does not agree to help, it will provide you with new information regarding how they value the relationship and your best next steps.

Create a script from this outline:
  • I need your help re: [state the topic]…
  • When [the recent, undesirable event (STATE SPECIFICS)] occurs…
  • The result is [SPECIFICALLY state the undesirable results]
  • And my concern about that is [state your negative situation, feelings, predicament, etc.]…
  • Can you commit to [SPECIFICALLY state the different, better actions you want the listener to take]…?
  • Thanks for agreeing to help me in this way…
  • I look forward to our next deal…
Sample script:

Note: the narrator in this scenario is an outside lawyer in a discussion with her bank client, “Bill,” regarding problems with borrowers applying for loans:

Bill, I need your help to avoid so many fee write-offs with your borrowers. I truly appreciate your business and want to continue working with you, but when a borrower like Anycorp, Inc. agrees upfront to reimburse our [standard/reasonable/ customary] fees and yet ends up requiring a substantial write-off, the result is that I find myself in a difficult position when our work is done. In the last year we had to write off over $50,000:

Blog_Table_AvoidDifficultClients
My concern about that is that I feel like no matter how well I keep you posted, and how good a job I do, I am often not paid in full. That puts me under pressure from my partners, who don’t expect me to work for free.

Can you commit to showing your borrowers my detailed budgets and work assumptions and get them to sign off on each material change in scope before I resume work, a procedure they can agree to in the term sheet?

Thanks, Bill. I really appreciate your strengthening these steps to help manage your borrower’s fee expectations so we can avoid ill will to your bank and protect my efforts. I really look forward to our next deal, when we can begin this new approach for our mutual benefit.

Of course, if Bill does not agree to this or some other mutually satisfactory solution, then you must reevaluate the relationship and whether it is worth the frustration and lost income. For instance, the bank may complain about your work or just show indifference to anything but low fees keeping their borrower happy. In any case, a business decision will be needed.

In Part 2 we will discuss options 2 and 3 (Accept the Situation and Leave the Situation).

This blog series was adapted from the fifth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, a frequently updated online library of LPM tools and templates.

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