Today we’re going to talk about keeping difficult clients. This is probably somewhat outside of the normal thought process, because a lot of people talk about firing the difficult client and keeping your sanity.
I certainly am a proponent of defining what constitutes what you will and won’t accept from your clients, but I do think that there is often not enough attention paid to the aspect of keeping difficult clients. That is something that can actually make you more successful in business and in life.
Tune in to learn more!
In this episode we discuss:
- Remembering that a difficult client isn’t about us, but what’s going on inside them.
- Learning not to take it personally when a client acts out.
- How difficult clients can help us become more effective leaders more able to manage crises.
- How the ability to work with difficult clients expands the number of people you can service.
- The power of reframing a situation to provide a client a different way of thinking about their issue.
- The importance of having a plan to share that gives a client a sense of confidence.
- The fact that a difficult, demanding client that requires more attention can be more lucrative.
Allison Williams: [00:00:11] Hi everybody, it’s Allison Williams here, your Law Firm Mentor. Law Firm Mentor is a business coaching service for solo and small law firm attorneys. We help you grow your revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money.
Allison Williams: [00:00:26] Hi, everybody, it’s Allison Williams here, your Law Firm Mentor. And on this week’s episode of The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast, we’re going to talk about keeping difficult clients. So I know this is probably somewhat outside of the the normal thought process because a lot of people talk about firing your difficult client, right. Getting rid of those F clients and keeping your sanity. And while I certainly am a proponent of defining what constitutes what you will and won’t accept from your clients, I do think that there is oftentimes not enough attention paid to the aspect of keeping difficult clients. That is something that can actually make you more successful in business and in life. So we’re going to cover that today. And the first couple of things I want to talk about are really the why behind why you would choose to keep your difficult clients. And then we’re going to actually talk about how to do that. So the why, there’s two different components as to why you’d want to keep difficult clients. And by difficult, I guess we should define that as well. We’re really talking about people who are combative, who don’t follow your advice, who get caught being untruthful, people that may be challenging to your value system, people that don’t necessarily play nicely with others.
Allison Williams: [00:01:45] Right. We call these, the kind of, at some people in the in the litigation world might call these the frequent fliers and other people that are so difficult in general that they kind of spur litigation because they’re always looking for a fight. And again, many people would say, well, why bother keeping those people? Let them be somebody else’s headache. But there’s a couple of reasons why. And the first one is that when you deal with difficult people, you have to grow as a person to be effective at it. So one of the, one of the people that I look to to talk about with this in particular is Elise Buie. And for those of you that don’t know Elise. Elise owns, or she owns a family law firm. Elise Buie Family Law out in Seattle, Washington. But she also is now the leader of the Maximum Mom podcast. And I had Elise on the podcast here, quite a few shows back. I will link to that in the show notes because we talked about this a little bit. But, you know, Elise has always had the perspective that she wants those those difficult parents who come in with the mindset of kind of search and destroy their ex because she sees it as her mission to actually help reform these people. Right. To to educate them, to teach them different ways. To teach them why the way that they are approaching life is not healthy.
Allison Williams: [00:03:11] And in order to to be able to facilitate that growth in another person, you have to have achieved that growth and be committed to that growth in yourself. And so one of the things that I see a lot online is, is people complaining about clients. Oh, my God. This client called me at some ungodly hour or this client called me ranting and raving, and they’re so unreasonable and yada, yada, yada. And oftentimes there is a neglect of asking yourself why the person is the way that they are. All right, so before you can even get to that quarry, you have to first not take it personally that the person is attacking or is calling at excessive hours or is needy. Right. If you take that personally, then it becomes a much harder challenge for you to be able to effectively deal with that person because their attributes are going to trigger in you a resistance to either deal with them, so you want to put them in their place and not have to deal with them. Or if you can deal with them, you oftentimes will fall prey to what can be really an abusive relationship where the person is offloading on you and you are taking that on as their victim until you finally end the relationship. And neither one of those approaches is ultimately healthy or productive for you or for the client. So one of the things that these people trigger in us as lawyers is a need to deal with stress.
Allison Williams: [00:04:45] And the more effective we are at dealing with stress, the more we can compartmentalize how a person is acting at us and see that as nothing more than a projection of what’s going on inside them. And it is spewing out. It happens to be directed at us in the moment, but it’s not about us. The more we can see that, the more we ultimately elevate ourselves to be able to problem solve, not from a place of emotion, but from a place of intellect and from a place of empathy where we can create more appropriate solutions for people in negotiated contexts and even in litigation contexts. OK, so the next thing that happens, the next reason why you would want to keep difficult clients and actually continue to work with them is that they require you to grow as a leader. Now, what I mean by this is that part of, part of the critical skill that you will have to develop as a leader to become a truly effective leader is that you have to manage crises. And crises can be personal crises. They can be interpersonal crises. They can be crises in your employees, in your client’s ethical crises. There are lots of different things that we will encounter as lawyers that will challenge us to become a better version of ourselves in order to lead people through a crisis.
Allison Williams: [00:06:11] And a lot of us saw what we were really made of in twenty twenty one when we started to have to deal with crises, from a perspective of asking the question, how do I get my team through this? Right. But one of the things that comes with asking that question is recognizing that there is no do as I say and not as I do in leadership. Even you, even though you might have that in parenting, you might try to imbue that in parenting. The reality is you are always being watched, you are always being evaluated, and you are always either inspiring the behavior that you desire or recoiling the desired, the behavior that you don’t desire. So you have to think about how you can model good behavior. And the better you are able as a leader, to imbue in your team the need for compassion, empathy, boundaries, appropriate emotion, regulation in you to deal with difficult people. The more you are going to be able to serve a diverse array of clients who have challenges that frankly are inherent in the work that we do. Right. So there’s, there’s something to be said for growing yourself so that you cannot just grow as a person for yourself, but also grow other people in the way of being able to deal with clients who have challenges. Now, that doesn’t mean that I support having abusive clients.
Allison Williams: [00:07:41] Right. But I see people consistently. I’ve seen it in my own law firm. I’ve seen it in other law firms as somewhat of a student of psychology and liking to watch people and kind of figure out what makes them tick. I love seeing how a person will become an obnoxious, abusive, brazen asshole with person number one. And then when person number two steps into the room, suddenly they’re a completely different human. Right. And I’m sure we all have seen that. Right. Where, you know, we’ve seen it with adversaries, we’ve seen it with clients. When an adversary is talking to lawyer number one who might be a very attractive twenty five year old lawyer who happens to be a woman, they’ll behave in a certain way. That’s very different than when they encounter a 60 year old man. Right. You can see differences in how people are treated based on race or disability status or experience or just the level of respect that we give to a person because we know of that person’s skill set. And oftentimes that that differential in how people are treated is partly based on demographics, but it’s also partly based on how they show up. Right. So when someone shows up with a certain level of intelligence and authority and ability, we give them a different level of respect than when a person shows up as meek or mild or timid. And I want you to think about the fact that when you grow and evolve into who you need to be in order to garner the level of respect, that you can help a person who is in distress to be redirected or help a person who’s behaving inappropriate to see the error of his or her ways that you are ultimately doing something better for yourself, but also better for your law firm because you can service more people.
Allison Williams: [00:09:33] Now, having said that, that’s that’s the motivation. These are the reasons why to grow as a person and to grow as a leader, the reasons why you might want to keep your difficult clients. But here are some actual strategies for how to do that. OK, so the three that we’re going to talk about today start with the power of a reframe. OK, so when we are talking to people who are in distress and almost invariably when someone is cursing, screaming, abusive, obnoxious, not listening, not not getting it, that person is in a form of distress, even if it’s not demonstrated to you in that way. OK, there’s a disconnect between what you are telling them and what they are absorbing, in part because the level of stress that they are internally experiencing because of whatever legal problem brought them to you, they are often not able to to deregulate their emotions enough to stop, pause, listen, truly contemplate before they just get to the next point, which is their ability to respond, to reject what you’re saying.
Allison Williams: [00:10:35] So when you talk about reframing, reframing is really giving a person a different way of thinking about their existing issue, concern or problem in a way that a series of questions can lead them to a different conclusion than they currently have. OK, now one of the things that I love to do when I meet with clients periodically and I have this a lot less now because my team at the law firm is just so exceptional. But there have been times in the past where clients will complain and say, I need to speak to the managing partner and they’ll be having… They’ll have worked with a lawyer on my team and then they’ll want to see me. So I’ll come in and I will have gotten the gist of what the what the client’s complaint is directly from the client as well as from the lawyer involved. But then when I get to the meeting with the client, I want the client to verbally tell me a reiteration of what they’ve written and telling me what they, what their version is of not just what’s wrong, but also why they perceive that they’re in this place. Right. And so a lot of times what will happen is they will start down the road of my lawyer didn’t send me the email at three o’clock. It was due at 3:00 and I didn’t get it until 4:00 or the lawyer told me that we were going to argue X and we argued Y or whatever the complaint is.
Allison Williams: [00:11:54] Right. And when I start to ask them questions and they start peppering me with questions, what I find is that the client who’s peppering with questions, well, why not this? Why can’t I have this? Why wasn’t this done? Why wasn’t that done? Why is it this way? Why is it not that way? That usually evidences that the client is seeking reassurance and they believe that by asking these questions, they are going to get the reassurance that they need in order to make the decision that they need to make, whether it’s to continue working with the lawyer on your team or to accept the deal that’s being offered or to try the case that is before you whatever, whatever is the seminal thing to be addressed next. They’re often in a state of internal distress, which is causing them to ask you five thousand questions because they want a magic answer that is going to make them feel better. And when you are candid with people that there is no magic answer to all of the questions that they have, that is going to alleviate the distress that is causing them to ask questions. Instead, it is accepting in themselves a certain level of lack of clarity, lack of consistency, lack of knowledge, lack of certainty that is inherent in the nature of the process that they’re in, but that they will be OK no matter the outcome.
Allison Williams: [00:13:21] Now, you might say, what if my client is facing 20 years in jail? Are they really going to be OK no matter the outcome? The reality is that the answer is they may or may not be OK with that choice or with that, with that, with that… I’m trying to think of the right word. They might not be OK with that outcome of their litigation. Right. But they’re going to be OK with the outcome of whatever the transaction is that will lead to that. And you’re not going to ever get them there to believe that they’re OK to stop peppering with questions, to stop looking for blame, to stop reacting or acting out the way that they are, unless you’re able to have them see that the way that they are behaving is not getting them the result that they want and continuing to behave the way that they’re behaving is not going to get them the result that they want. Right. Because at the heart of all human beings is logic. I know that you may say it’s completely illogical that this person is calling me at three o’clock in the morning and then demanding by nine o’clock that I should have called them back or they’re going to file an ethics grievance. Right. That’s completely illogical. But in their mind, it is logical. Right. They may not be acting on accurate thinking, but they are acting on thinking.
Allison Williams: [00:14:37] They are of the belief that if I do X, I will get Y. And a lot of the power of a reframe is helping them to recognize that you are on their side so that they stop tilting at you, whatever behavior, questioning attitude that you’re experiencing so that they start to see you as an ally. Right. And a lot of that is about taking all that stuff that’s coming out of their mind and getting them onto a different wavelength. And that comes from your having a higher level of certainty and what you are saying than the certainty that they are saying. Right. And their questions, doubts, concerns, fears, whatever it is, if you buy into that as the question that needs to be answered rather than the reassurance that they’re really seeking, then no matter how many questions you answer, there are always going to be more questions. There’s always going to be more that is going to be necessary because you’re not giving them what they need. You’re giving them what they’re asking for. OK, so the next thing, the next strategy I want to give you and talk in talking about keeping your difficult clients. Is that you have to plan ahead. OK, and planning ahead usually means that you have to give your client a navigation tool to guide them from where they are to the outcome that they seek.
Allison Williams: [00:16:01] They have to know that you don’t just have the answer to today’s problem, but that you have the pathway to tomorrow’s solution. And that comes from an idea that you are very experienced at what you’re doing. And you can give that. You can connote that even if you are newer to a practice area. Right. But your goal is to convey to the client that you have it under control because they are experiencing a lack of control. They’re experiencing a lack of certainty, a lack of comfort, a lack of ease. They don’t know what’s going to happen if they’re ill and they could die at any moment without their estate plan. They don’t know what’s going to happen in their divorce. If they don’t receive enough money to support themselves and their children. They don’t know what’s going to happen if the other side comes back more aggressive, more combative, more definitive about a problem than you are. So you want to give them a plan and you want to have the ability to kind of pivot and let them know you can pivot the plan so that they don’t hold you to a plan, that doesn’t make sense at some point. But you want to give them a sense of confidence that you do have the plan and that they do have a voice in the ultimate outcome of the plan. So that, as you’re saying, here’s what we’ll do and here’s what we’ll do and here’s what we’ll do.
Allison Williams: [00:17:21] And here’s how you’ll be empowered to make decisions in what we do so that you ultimately can have a say in what the ultimate outcome is. And by the way, this is not about telling the client, well, you chose this. So if it goes wrong, that’s on you. Right? Nobody wants to feel like the shifting is the shifting of conversation is about a shifting of blame. But your goal is to really shift their awareness into a thought that says, my lawyer has it under control. Right. And so knowing four steps ahead is something that is going to help them in that regard, but also knowing that if at step three something happens, I got that under control, too, right.
Allison Williams: [00:18:03] OK, third strategy for keeping your difficult clients is that you have to recognize that standing in challenge often is quite lucrative. OK, standing in the challenge is often quite lucrative. Now, what I mean by that is that there are some people that use money to try to dissuade people from being excessively communicative or excessively needy or from demanding unreasonable positions. And I’m not a real big fan of doing that. We talk about this actually in the collections training that we’ve done for Law Firm Mentor so that people understand that when you are when you are using money as kind of an ipso facto. Fine. If I have to deal with you, I’m going to charge you for it.
Allison Williams: [00:18:54] You build up a certain level of resentment in your clients because no one wants to feel like they are the burden of the person that they are working with. Nor do they want to feel like you see them as just a golden goose to make the most money off of. And they will see that even if you say to them, I want you to stop calling, because every time you call, I charge you. Right. On some level, it is your choice to do that. So even when you say pursuant to our policies, I have a right to charge you, if you call, call, call, they’re still going to see that as you’re making a choice to charge them. Not you are trying to help them to not be charged by not speaking to them about something. OK, so I want you to think about it though, that even when you have these people who want to fight and want to go the distance and want to battle. If you are billing by the hour or your billing by a certain amount of, you know, even if you’re doing flat fee and you’re charging by a phase of a case, you know, nothing stops you from layering on if you do it pursuant to a contract and it’s permissible in your jurisdiction. Layering on added costs for communications, added costs for additional strategy calls, added cost for a different approach, once you decide on an approach.
Allison Williams: [00:20:09] There’s different ways that you can handle making more money with flat fees, even if you have a flat fee case. But ultimately, however you approach it, if the way that you are approaching difficult people is that for all of that extra work, you will be compensated. You can actually be very, very financially successful with people that demand a lot. And I remember one of the things that I had the greatest challenge with when I was a young attorney was kind of flittering back and forth between my middle class clients and my affluent clients. So the middle class clients, you can have difficult, difficult personalities and no matter their economics, but middle class clients would come in and they knew they had a limited amount of money to spend and they knew that they needed to get there within a range of something that they were expecting. So you could give them a range of reasonable and you could say this is usually about X hours. It can go up if other side is unreasonable, you’re unreasonable, court is adjourned, whatever it is. Right. But a client had an idea of what they were in for. And when you dealt with affluent people who really didn’t concern themselves with what they were in for. Right. If it’s thirty thousand dollars or one hundred thousand dollars, they have it. You know. They might not want to give you one hundred thousand dollars, but they aren’t… They wouldn’t say I’ll walk away from what I want because it’s going to cost me one hundred thousand dollars.
Allison Williams: [00:21:38] That’s not the way that their mind works. So you didn’t have that same pressure of I’ve got to do this as efficiently as possible to preserve the resources, or I have to have money conversations with every strategy conversation so that the client can make an economic choice at the same time that they’re making a strategy choice with the affluent client. Sky was the limit. Right. And that gave you a lot of freedom and a lot of independence to be able to to make the sexy arguments and tell them, well, here’s a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this particular argument. And I’ve made it once successfully out of the 50 times I’ve made it. But you have some strong facts here. And if we lose this, we can still do X, Y, Z. They’d say, all right, we’ll go for it. Right. And that’s an area where you could make new law. That’s an area where you could start to demonstrate your legal prowess. That’s an area where you could stretch yourself to create opportunities from existing pieces of law that all fit a scenario, but only to a certain degree. And you can now actually create a compelling argument on the other side. And that comes with people that have resources, and that doesn’t mean that people who don’t have resources would not want the same level of intellectual acumen and dexterity. They would if you offered it to them.
Allison Williams: [00:23:05] But the challenging people who are willing to pay for you to go the distance, to take that challenge and take it to the finish line, that also produces for those of us that love lawyering, really sexy opportunities. And a lot of times what stops us from having those sexy opportunities is entrenching ourselves in a mindset that says if this person is difficult, I have to let them go. Right.
Allison Williams: [00:23:33] Now, there are definitely times where you should let people go when they are a high risk for grievance or malpractice. But that doesn’t mean that if somebody is difficult, your first and only instinct should be to let them go because there’s opportunity with your difficult people in your growth, as a leader, as a person, with your standing in the challenge to make more. And if you have that as a backdrop and you understand that, then helping your clients with a reframe and with planning ahead becomes a lot easier.
Allison Williams: [00:24:06] All right. Today we have talked about keeping your difficult clients as a lawyer who is certified, who has tried well over 60 cases and who loves trial work and loves lawyering, I can tell you that I have employed all of these strategies in order to deal with some of the most difficult people across the state, but also to have a really, really successful career.
Allison Williams: [00:24:26] So that’s what we want for all of you, to have success on your terms as you define it. And sometimes that means working with difficult clients. If you need help to not just work with difficult clients, but to find the success strategies that are necessary in order to draw in those people, keep those people in the world while you are generating consistent recurring revenue and while you are creating for yourself more free time working with those people and or having your team work with those people. We’re here at Law Firm Mentor to help you. Reach out our scheduler in the show notes to this episode. I’m Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor everyone. Have a great day.
Allison Williams: [00:25:20] Thank you for tuning in to the Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast. To learn more about today’s guests and take advantage of the resources mentioned, check out our show notes. And if you own a solo or small law firm and are looking for guidance, advice or simply support on your journey to create a law firm that runs without you, join us in the Law Firm Mentor Movement free Facebook group. There, you can access our free trainings on improving collections in law firms, meeting billable hours, and join the movement of thousands of law firm owners across the country who want to crush chaos in their law firm and make more money. I’m Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor. Have a great day.
Allison C. Williams, Esq., is Founder and Owner of the Williams Law Group, LLC, with offices in Short Hills and Freehold, New Jersey. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, is Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney and is the first attorney in New Jersey to become Board-Certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy in the field of Family Law.
Ms. Williams is an accomplished businesswoman. In 2017, the Williams Law Group won the LawFirm500 award, ranking 14th of the fastest growing law firms in the nation, as Ms. Williams grew the firm 581% in three years. Ms. Williams won the Silver Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017. In 2018, Ms. Williams was voted as NJBIZ’s Top 50 Women in Business and was designated one of the Top 25 Leading Women Entrepreneurs and Business Owners. In 2019, Ms. Williams won the Seminole 100 Award for founding one of the fastest growing companies among graduates of Florida State University.
In 2018, Ms. Williams created Law Firm Mentor, a business coaching service for lawyers. She helps solo and small law firm attorneys grow their business revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money. Through multi-day intensive business retreats, group and one-to-one coaching, and strategic planning sessions, Ms. Williams advises lawyers on all aspects of creating, sustaining and scaling a law firm business – and specifically, she teaches them the core foundational principles of marketing, sales, personnel management, communications and money management in law firms.
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Episode 47 with Elise Buie: https://buff.ly/3jIJRxD
00:23:33 (33 Seconds)
Now, there are definitely times where you should let people go when they are a high risk for grievance or malpractice. But that doesn’t mean that if somebody is difficult, your first and only instinct should be to let them go because there’s opportunity with your difficult people in your growth, as a leader, as a person, with your standing in the challenge to make more. And if you have that as a backdrop and you understand that, then helping your clients with a reframe and with planning ahead becomes a lot easier.