It’s Not Me, It’s You: My Thoughts on Dealing with “The Clients From Hell”

I can remember the email like it was yesterday, even though it’s been a few years now.

I’m sitting on my couch, at 7pm on the Friday night before New Years Eve. I check my work e-mail to find this long, mean request (demand) from a client. The client wanted updates on about a dozen matters, and they wanted them right then. The e-mail had the red exclamation point and a condescending tone that was unmistakable.

This client had long before decided that I was over-paid, too slow to respond, and, despite the great success I’d had for them, not very good at my job.

In the spirit of New Years Eve Resolutions, I decided right then that the next year would bring one specific change: I was going to fire my largest paying client.

The next week, I did just that. There was no conciliatory or touchy-feely “let’s work this out” effort. Instead, I thanked them for the work and gave them a list of 3 lawyers who I sincerely thought would do a fine job for them.

You can imagine my interest, then, in the recent articles about “How to Handle the Client from Hell.” Here’s the original article, “How to Deal with a Toxic Client.”

I’m fortunate to be a very busy lawyer, and the risk I took by firing a big client was tempered by my ability to focus my efforts on my other clients (who actually appreciated my work and results).

Not every lawyer has that luxury, but I question the advice in the articles, like asking the ranting client “What was that all about?” Open hostility rarely makes for a good working relationship, especially one that involves hourly billings that the client is complaining about.

My ultimate take-away on my decision was this: I screen new clients thoroughly, to make sure that their expectations fit in with my abilities (including costs, results, and time). If they want constant updates on minor developments, they might not be for me (unless, of course, they are willing to pay me for those constant updates).

Angry, ungrateful, and cheap? No, thank you.

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