Lawyers in their professional capacity interact with a variety of clients for a variety of issues. It is not unusual for lawyers in both private practice and the public sector to encounter clients who seem chronically dissatisfied with the legal advice rendered or services provided. Such clients may retaliate or direct their frustration by filing a complaint, harassing the lawyer, or slandering the lawyer to friends who may otherwise be a source of referral. This essay will identify why it is important for lawyers who render expert legal advice to recognize clients who may be dissatisfied, the reasons for their dissatisfaction, and interventions to ameliorate or stave off recrimination or even professional malpractice claims.
What About Bob
The brilliant movie What About Bob illustrates how a client with low self-esteem, self-doubt, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and other mental health problems focuses his pathology on his psychiatrist who he endlessly harasses while the psychiatrist is with his family on summer vacation to the point that the psychiatrist suffers a nervous breakdown due to the overwhelming demands of this single patient. Such clients are emotionally and psychologically draining and professionally and personally distracting—and possibly even dangerous.
When a difficult or demanding client undermines a lawyer’s professional practice the lawyer’s ability to properly serve that client or even other clients may be jeopardized. Legal malpractice claims cause lawyers time, money, aggravation, professional penalty, and injures their self-confidence even leading to self-doubt about their professional ability and conduct. The lawyer may begin to question his professional judgment (also known as imposter syndrome), become paralyzed with fear or anxiety, or question if he is in the right profession altogether. Finally, the lawyer may feel violated and choose to turn away similar cases or similar demanding clients in the future.
Why Does this Occur?
Clients like Bob are chronically anxious, frustrated, angry, or disappointed with themselves or other people or events from their past, but they find that contending with their personal issues is too painful, overwhelming, frightening, or confusing. As such, the client inappropriately contends with his personal and mental health issues with anyone with whom he has developed a close relationship often blurring personal and professional boundaries in the process. Essentially, after the client has gained a sense of trust in the lawyer he then feels free to develop and confide in the lawyer about personal issues that have nothing to do with the legal matter, and which may even draw attention away from the lawyer’s primary professional focus. While some of the dissatisfaction that the client expresses may be based on legitimate concerns about the lawyer’s professional conduct or the lawyer-client relationship, the client would probably feel dissatisfied regardless of the quantity or quality of attention devoted to his case, or even which lawyer he chose to evaluate his legal claim.
Transference refers to reactive feelings the patient may experience in the context of therapy with the therapist. For example, the patient may perceive that the therapist’s questions are intrusive or even threatening. This may remind the patient of intrusive or threatening questions that his parents asked when he was growing up. In turn, this may evoke anxiety, anger, and a wide range of other emotions for the patient. Transference occurs in two contexts: childhood transference concerning then and there (childhood) issues and here and now transference (adult) that refers specifically to a patient’s feelings that emerge from the patient-therapist relationship. Transference is a major factor towards a positive therapeutic alliance between patient and therapist, and can even be curative.
Transference can serve as an important tool for lawyers because in some respects the relationship between the lawyer and the client is not dissimilar to patient and therapist. Lawyers need to ask a wide range of very personal questions to understand a client’s legal issues and background, and this will inevitably invoke transference, that is, immediate feelings on the part of the client. It may even cause the client to become involved in an unhealthy or overly dependent relationship with the lawyer. Ultimately, the lawyer wants to develop a trusting lawyer-client relationship to allow the client to feel sufficiently comfortable to discuss his issues allowing the lawyer to understand the client and advocate for his needs as best as possible.
A major reason that the client may view his lawyer as a quasi-therapist is because of the confidentiality rule. We all have secrets that we rarely share with others because of the fear that others will speak about our secrets causing us embarrassment and emotional pain. Confidentiality is a rarity found primarily with clergy, healthcare professionals, and lawyers. The lawyer-client confidentiality may provide the client a sense of trust opening up about extremely personal matters separate from the legal issue.
Countertransference is the therapist’s emotional reaction to a patient’s verbal or affective contribution during therapy. Clinicians are constantly on guard for feelings of discomfort because it helps alert them to clinical inadequacy and also serves as a clue that the patient is causing the therapist to feel uneasy through the patient’s own verbal or non-verbal communication. Ask yourself what is it about a particular client or case that causes you to feel anxious or angry or concerned, or even elated? Molyn Leszcz once noted, “when two people are in therapy it helps if one of them is not nervous.” In other words, the lawyer must feel very comfortable when contending with clients’ issues if they are to remain focused and in control during client meetings to ensure that they are productive and professional.
Although lawyers are not mental health professionals they can rely on certain internal triggers to determine when they have a client with a personal problem or psychiatric issue which is separate from the legal case. It is also important to recognize that sometimes a client’s problems and psychiatric issues are directly related to their legal problem. For example, individuals who suffer physical or personal injury may then endure isolation, mental health issues, or physical restrictions in their lives which clearly would pertain to the litigation issue.
When the lawyer feels unease, nervousness, anxiety, fear, frustration, or anger without an apparent source, the client has likely behaved or said something that has caused the lawyer’s natural self-protective defenses to go up. As Gavin de Becker noted in The Gift of Fear (1997), we all have these innate protective triggers and they serve as an early warning system that the person we are dealing with is dangerous, a potential threat, or somehow unbalanced. By the same token, it is sometimes appropriate to feel threatened or anxious and this remains a key tool for our survival. For example, when I interview a prisoner in a closed room who has a history of violence I remain constantly vigilant for my safety, even while remaining professional eliciting information for the psychosocial evaluation.
The errors or missteps that I have made over the years in my clinical and forensic practice have almost always been rooted in countertransference issues. That is, in those cases where clients have made me feel uneasy in a particular way, often with negative emotions such as feeling threatened, anger, or anxiety causing me to respond in unhelpful ways. When I should be focused on the client’s issues my mind will wander to whatever feelings have been aroused. For example, I evaluate many cases with individuals from impoverished countries where they did not have access to good education and because I value education as a top priority for my family I sometimes find myself frustrated with such individuals, but then I must remind myself that I had the good fortune to grow up in Canada where good public education is free and almost universally available.
The professional should never be intimidated by countertransference—take a deep breath and think about what it means—and use it as a tool to behave more professionally. Perhaps it is simply opposing counsel or opposing counsel’s client acting in a manner that is hostile or even trying to obfuscate an issue that pushes your buttons. Do not become unbalanced, rather turn it into an opportunity to consider that perhaps opposing counsel or his client has his back up against the wall because he feels that the case is either weak or that he is at a juncture where he may encounter a setback. Countertransference may simply indicate that your legal skills are very good and you have hit a nerve that the client is self-conscious about, and which requires more rather than less exploration.
Several character types are generally recognizable given their presentation and interaction with others. It must be emphasized that the following character types have significant overlapping traits so that in some sense the character type divisions are artificial.
Dependent Type: Such persons have difficulty making everyday decisions and need others to assume responsibility for them. They have difficulty expressing disagreement and feel uncomfortable or helpless when they are alone. Such clients may unconsciously try to turn the lawyer into a parent or caretaker bringing to the office insatiable needs for affection and attention, and then become sulky and hostile when those needs cannot be met. Dependent individuals may also have fears about separation or that others who are helpful may suffer untoward harm, which would, in turn, impact the person’s ability to provide for their own needs.
Self-Centered Type: Such persons believe that they are the center of all things, wonderfully special with a strong sense of entitlement, and are often envious of others. Such clients may react with fury to legal setbacks in their case and routinely threaten to sue even when short delays occur. This is a major problem for civil and criminal litigation lawyers because it is not unusual for legal matters to be very delayed dragging on for months or even years. During these delays the client may feel ignored or that their lawyer is failing to properly monitor the legal problems even though there is simply nothing to do for that particular client or his issues.
Borderline Type: Such persons are highly manipulative and coercive, routinely project their anxieties unto others, view the world as all good or all bad, and feel chronically dissatisfied with service providers in most contexts, as they perceive the interpersonal connection with the professional fails to address their concrete and emotional needs. Such clients cannot absorb or tolerate a valence of emotions and tend to feel overwhelmed when things do not fit neatly into exact meanings. Borderline clients may also act in self-destructive ways undermining their lawyer’s advice or even evoke self-pity and deep assertions of entitlement. Such clients may harbor false beliefs, that is, delusions, with distortions of reality that may also impact their ability to properly communicate their thoughts and feelings way further causing confusion between the client and lawyer. They may become confused and feel frustrated when their lawyer explains that one claim in the case is strong and another claim has no legal basis. The client, who initially idealized his lawyer and praised his work as extraordinary, may now demonize his professional conduct and impulsively assert that he has never been taken seriously. Such clients are often frantic to avoid real or imagined abandonment and may act in ways to reassure themselves that someone in whom they placed their trust and in whom they were assured of “friendship” will continue to maintain that interpersonal contact even after the case is complete.
Paranoid Type: Such persons are preoccupied with unjustified doubts or suspicions about others. They are reluctant to confide in others and may persistently bear grudges. Such clients may withhold vital information from the lawyer leaving the lawyer unprepared with all the relevant facts and thus unable to represent his client to the best of his abilities. Ultimately, such clients have a very low sense of trust in others because of their paranoid ideation. They may undermine their trust in the relationship with their lawyer, but they may also undermine trust in their ability to feel secure about their legal claims and the harms they have suffered. Such clients often have low self-esteem, poor self-worth, self-doubt, and define their value in the context of interpersonal relationships in both positive and negative ways. Such clients may gain positive feelings about themselves through interpersonal relationships believing that anyone who would agree to take on their case and become their “friend” is essential to their well-being. Such clients have a poor understanding of their own needs and emotional health. When such clients feel that their lawyer has abandoned them, they may feel deep jealousy, anger, or even rage.
Antisocial Type: Such persons may act with superficial charm and yet may also behave in dangerous or nonconforming ways with a pattern of disregard for others, express intense anger, or an inability to control their anger. Such clients are often irresponsible in various ways and fail to follow the norms in society, act in aggressive and deceitful ways or lead a parasitic life-style, may act with reckless behavior or disregard for others, may be unable to express sincere regret for harm caused to others, and on occasion may pose a real threat to the lawyer’s safety due to their disregard for the well-being of others.
Controlling Type: Such persons are preoccupied with details and rules, demonstrate perfectionism, are unable to separate that which is valuable from that which is not, are often miserly in their spending, and are rigid and stubborn, sometimes due to compulsive behaviors. Due to the client’s obsessional thinking, he may become so consumed with the details of the case that the client prevents the lawyer from moving forward with the substantive issues that need to be addressed. Controlling individuals may see themselves as co-counsel to the lawyer rather than maintaining the role of the client, so that the individual may become improperly involved in legal strategy and even research on substantive and procedural law.
Behaviors of Clients Who Are Dissatisfied
There are several common elements of the character types noted above. Overall, these individuals may feel that their lawyer does not hear them or that the lawyer has ignored, humored, or simply used them for frivolous profit. The client may harbor such feelings even when the lawyer provides his undivided attention to the client and the case is handled in an exemplary fashion. It is sometimes the case that clients act destructively because for the first time in their lives a considerate professional is listening to their problems in a serious way and the client is therefore in a novel interpersonal and beneficial relationship. The client may use the opportunity after many years of feeling abandoned by friends and family to discuss extraneous issues from their life with their lawyer who is a somewhat trapped audience. More commonly, these character types will begin meetings with lawyers in a professional manner discussing the merits of the case or how it is progressing, and then segue or interweave matters that are tangentially related or altogether extraneous. Then, the lawyer feels obligated to listen to these matters and seriously consider them even though they are separate from the actual litigation. In time, the lawyer may become overwhelmed by the client’s intense needs.
The client may erroneously believe that he is entitled to a better outcome than offered, or is even possible. The client may demand unrealistic results from the lawyer while also ignoring his lawyer’s best legal counsel. The client may pay a substantial fee and expect that this will magically bring a positive conclusion to the problem, even though the lawyer may require considerable assistance from the client or the client may be extremely naïve about the civil or criminal justice system.
Clients may also feel dissatisfied due to an inner experience of emptiness or loneliness or unresolved interpersonal issues from previous important relationships even though such emotions may have nothing to do with the present legal case. However, the issues in the case and the relationship between the client and lawyer may awaken thoughts, feelings, and even behaviors that the client plays out in the context of the case. This may lead the client to sabotage, undermine, or otherwise harm his case, often without being aware of the consequences of his actions.
The client may call the lawyer every day or even visit the lawyer’s office every day overstepping appropriate boundaries. (If the lawyer is billing by the hour then daily visits or phone calls from the client may be welcome). Frequent calls have become a much more serious problem in the digital age because the client has the lawyer’s cell phone number to call or text messages whereas before cell phones the client had only the lawyer’s office landline number.
The demanding client may make unnecessary or unhelpful requests to the lawyer. The lawyer may explain to the client that such suggestions are appreciated, but serve to detract from the client’s case. However, after the client has made a suggestion a dozen times the lawyer may pursue the client’s suggestion as a means to pacify the client and allow the lawyer to direct his attention to other cases, which are just as important. In such cases, it is even possible that the lawyer may pursue paths that are not professionally advisable and the client may later question why the lawyer ever adopted such a path if other lawyers with similar professional training would not have done so. The lawyer may become so unnerved that he may consciously or unconsciously devote less attention and less energy to the client in retaliation for the client’s harassing communication and neediness. Professional liability and professional personal integrity may be at risk.
Interventions to Diffuse a Potential Problem
The following suggestions, some of which may be de rigueur, may help diffuse a problem before it becomes unmanageable.
Clarity of Purpose. At the outset, the lawyer should clarify in writing his duties to the client and state the services that the lawyer can and cannot provide through his counsel. This may include the limitations of the legal system to redress the client’s legal claims and personal issues. The lawyer must be realistic about what he can and cannot provide as counsel given his legal training, experience, office support, workload, and areas of specialty. Moreover, while lawyers have the experience, expertise, and understanding about the legal issues the client may be completely ignorant so that sometimes simply informing the client so that their knowledgebase is broadened can be very calming to the client.
Consistency of Counsel. It is important to remain consistent in advice drawn from legal research and professional experience. The emotional thoughts and feelings of the client should not dictate the legal course of a case. Changes in the course of legal strategy may leave the lawyer open to liability if based merely on the client’s initiatives or demands. When legal strategy needs to be altered or changed the lawyer should be clear as to the reason and reasoning to ensure that the client both understands and approves of the direction change.
Appropriate Boundaries. The lawyer must remain steadfast in his interpersonal boundaries and role as a legal counselor. Lawyers who deviate from their professional role risk the client perceiving an opportunity to admonish the lawyer for unprofessional conduct. The boundary between client and friend must remain clear and secure. The client may need to be reminded that the relationship, though secured in trust and confidence, is professionally based. If the client acts in a manner that is sexually inappropriate or otherwise unacceptable, the lawyer should consider a colleague sitting in on future meetings and/or serve as co-counsel on the case.
Conflict / Ambiguity. The lawyer may wish to address any conflict or ambiguity that arises as early as possible to prevent a potential problem. If the client appears unable or unwilling to articulate his concerns it may be helpful for the lawyer to directly state: “I sense that you are somewhat dissatisfied. Perhaps I can answer some further questions that you have before you leave today. Or “You seem rather anxious. Is there something about the advice that I gave you that you do not fully understand?” Or, “Let me see if I understand you correctly…” At the first indication of client dissatisfaction, the lawyer should concretize the client’s uneasy feelings and translate those concerns into a legal context so that the client feels confident that his concerns have been heard, as client’s anger, disappointment, or frustration can grow ugly in silence.
Second Opinion. Obtaining a second opinion from a colleague can reassure even an experienced lawyer that his advice is sound given the available facts. Moreover, reviewing research a second time may also be helpful. If necessary, it may be prudent to advise the client that another lawyer may view their legal concerns differently and that the client is indeed entitled to obtain a second opinion.
Unfinished Business. Towards the end of the lawyer’s professional relationship with the client, it may be wise to periodically remind the client that your counsel for this particular matter will soon end. The lawyer should inquire if there is any unfinished business that the client wishes the lawyer to address, including the fee, the process of wrapping up the case, or any final paperwork. It is better to raise such issues that may later lead to concern or even complaints while the trust between the lawyer and the client is still strong.
Documentation. The lawyer should document in detail all services performed, all complaints or dissatisfaction raised by the client, as well as the interventions provided, including subsequent referrals and the outcome.
Self-Awareness. Lawyers need to cultivate self-awareness to know when they are reacting not to a specific client but an unrelated incident in their own lives—that is, counter-transference issues, as noted above. Lawyers must also learn to express empathy in words as well as gestures and not to yell back at a dissatisfied or angry client, but to acknowledge the client’s concerns in a professional manner. Also, tossing and turning at night is normal now and again, but know the signs of professional fatigue because lawyer uneasiness is the best indicator of a difficult client.
Self-awareness may also provide insight into the lawyer’s own office and professional conduct separate from the client. For example, a client’s complaint may indicate that the lawyer should consider hiring more support staff or even another lawyer in the office to assist with the workload and clients’ needs. Another example is lawyers who specialize in one area of law and are then asked to assist the client with a completely different legal matter because the client has come to trust the lawyer, though the lawyer has no experience in that second area of law—perhaps outside of what he remembers from law school. As such, well-intentioned zeal is great, but be cautious for over-involvement and becoming involved in a manner beyond one’s expertise.
Difficult and demanding clients can undermine not only their case but also sabotage the lawyer’s professional practice causing the lawyer personal harm. Avoiding such impasses and legal malpractice can be achieved by knowing how to interact with and appease the difficult client by an informed understanding of the client’s dissatisfaction and how best to respond as a professional. This will also permit the lawyer to enjoy a less stressful legal practice, enjoy his work, and serve his clients to the best of his abilities.