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With all due respect? Zen approach to difficult clients

Every Issue

Cite as: (2008) 82(9) LIJ, p. 88

There comes a time in every young lawyer’s life when he or she has to deal with a client considered to be “difficult”, and that time is usually about 10 minutes into the first day on the job.

This is because older lawyers never speak to “difficult” clients, and so the first thing they do with a new employee is throw him or her to some 140-kilogram psychopath whose disposition has not been improved by virtue of the fact that no one has returned his calls in five months.

Of course, the term “difficult” has levels of intensity depending on what kind of law you do. If you are a conveyancing solicitor, a difficult client is probably an irate real estate agent, most of whom are about as threatening as a week-old piece of fish – yes, in the right circumstances they could kill you, and they smell bad, but outsmarting one is hardly considered a draining encounter.

On the other hand, if you do criminal law then a difficult client usually arrives with a hostage already in tow and trailed by news teams, police and someone from one of the media empires offering $50,000 for exclusive rights to the client’s story (note: if that happens, get your client to sign an agency agreement, and then see if you can arrange to have Hugh Jackman or Eric Bana play your client in the movie; also, keep in mind that this would be a bad time to discuss getting money into trust).

So how do you deal with such clients? Beats me, I work for a regulatory authority, but what you shouldn’t do is attend any seminar which has a title like: “Dealing with difficult clients – the Chi Master approach”.

This is because such seminars are always given by people who:

(a) have never dealt with anyone more difficult than a bus driver who won’t accept a $10 note; and

(b) list their occupation as “consultant”.

Consultant is not an occupation, it is an affliction, much like heroin use but with less devastating consequences.

Heroin addicts might break into your house and steal your laptop, but they won’t drone on endlessly about the importance of achieving synergy and dialoguing with stakeholders to achieve seamless service delivery; indeed, I suspect most people pay consultants their fee only on the agreement that they shut up and leave.

I’m surprised that experienced consultants don’t simply turn up and threaten to start speaking unless everyone hands over their laptops; I know I’d give them mine in a second.

“Refresher” course

The problem with consultants is that the logic behind their existence is completely flawed – these are people who don’t do your job, have never done anything like your job, but nevertheless are getting paid more in one week than you make in a quarter to tell you how to do your job more efficiently.

You should never encourage consultants by engaging them to do work, because inevitably three months later they will call up and point out that it is time for a “refresher” course, as for some reason information provided by consultants has some strange quantum property which causes it to decay over time, meaning that you have to be bored half to death over and over again.

Another problem with consultants is, of course, that they do not require qualifications – it isn’t like you go off to uni or do a trade to get certified as a consultant (now that I have pointed that out, uni deans all around the country are drafting BA courses in consulting that will cost roughly the same as a brand-new jet aircraft). For all you know, the consultant you engage was driving cabs until two weeks ago, when he was fired for taking three attempts to find Melbourne on a map of Victoria; in fact, only three attempts would make him one of your sharper consultants.

The point is, of course, that you don’t need a consultant to know how to deal with difficult clients, because you have this article, and I am going to give you the answer.

When you face a difficult client, you need to speak calmly and listen to everything they say, making detailed file notes all the while.

When they have said their piece, you need to look them in the eye, and with as much sincerity as you can muster, refer them to another firm.

This may seem unfair to that firm, but I am sure you can think of a firm or two that deserve problem clients, and if you can’t I can give you a list – and don’t worry, your firm isn’t on there, just a whole bunch of firms from New South Wales; trust me!

SHANE BUDDEN is a legal officer with the Queensland Building Services Authority. This column first appeared in the Queensland journal Proctor.

Miss Demeanour’s guide to life, love, law – and disorder

Dear Miss Demeanour

I know your column is usually reserved for matters of love, life and liquor, but I wanted to ask you about something slightly more lofty: civil liberties. You may have heard about the World Youth Day regulations which made it an offence to “cause annoyance”. They were deemed invalid by the Full Federal Court, but it made me realise we need a Bill of Rights to protect freedom of speech. What do you think?

Regards, Agitated

Dear Agitated

I feel somewhat vindicated that you would refer this weighty issue to me, especially as three Federal Court judges [one of whom has now been named Australian High Court Chief Justice] thought they could quite capably deal with it without the benefit of my counsel. Some people.

And with the greatest respect to their Honours, I thought those anti-annoyance laws were the best thing to happen since the office block I work in changed its security system so all workers now have to leave the building by 10pm.

In fact, I think those laws should apply to the workplace too. Just yesterday my secretary came in to ask me (for the seventh time) whether I’d done my bills. I said no (after all, I can’t exactly do bills at the same time as participating in an email-go-round to organise a weekend with friends . . . um, duh!). Hand on jutted hip, she interrogates me: “Just when will they be done?” Guilty as charged.

PS: In the spirit of World Youth Day, let me confess that I found myself thinking once or twice that I certainly wouldn’t mind the Pope’s gig. I mean, red patent leather slip-ons (which, despite the protestations to the contrary from the Vatican, are so heavenly they just have to be Prada), truly unique outfits, an entourage of 27 attendants, and a dashing secretary. Have mercy!


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