Amygdala Hijack. It's the clinical name for when the neurochemistry of fear takes over  – when you imagine the worst-case scenario. This (among others) is one of the key ingredients to difficult relationships between clients and lawyers. A life-altering event of the sort a lawyer is likely to help with is tough to navigate, and there’s no road map on how to deal with uncertainty of what life will be like “after” the dust settles.

To help lawyers and other professionals (like private investigators) deal with difficult, emotional, even combative clients, we talked to three legal professionals who work some of the most difficult clients of all: people getting divorced.

  • Jason Levoy is a former divorce lawyer and now divorce coach. He is the creator of DivorceU, the most comprehensive and affordable divorce resource available.
  • Lisa J. Smith, Esq. is a collaborative attorney and divorce mediator. For over 25 years, she has helped her clients view divorce with an approach towards problem solving.
  • Joan Meier is a nationally recognized expert on domestic violence and the law, appellate litigation, and clinical law teaching. In 2003, she founded the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP), which provides pro bono appellate representation in compelling domestic violence cases. 

Each one of them had a different point of view on dealing with difficult, emotional clients, and we wanted to share them with you.

What Makes Law Clients Difficult to Deal With?

We started with the basic question: why are relationships between clients and lawyers in these situations difficult at times? In general, what makes a client “difficult” to work with?

“Difficult” can begin with what the client is willing to share with you. “The biggest factor is when the client isn't honest with you and doesn't give you all the facts,” said Levoy. “As the attorney, I need to know everything, so I can craft the best response on behalf of my client. I can only act based on the information my client gives me and I rely on the accuracy of that information.”

“Difficult” can also refer to a mindset, as Smith explained. “If they are overly stuck in a position. By that I mean they are focused on a particular issue, like ‘I have to have the house.’ They may get what they ask for, but it may not be what they need in the end. They need to take the opportunity to think about what they need moving forward, what is important for their life moving forward.”

And “difficult” can refer to everyone involved - including the lawyer.  “Ethically, as a lawyer you are to advocate for your client, and often the client is so traumatized that you are only capable of doing so much,” said Meier. “In family law, you need compassion and be able to listen, obviously, but you have to manage your own care. It's challenging to deal with highly traumatized victims and many times that stress can lead to burnout.”

All three of our attorneys agreed that all hope isn’t lost when it comes to these difficult relationships. They pointed to good communication and trust as the key, but only if both sides are willing to work on the relationship.

How Do You Foster Good Communications With Clients?

So how do you create an environment to nurture the relationship with a client and work towards improving it? It starts by setting expectations and being upfront with the client.

Levoy explained. “I always try to be upfront and honest. I give the client the good, bad and the ugly. It doesn't do any good to sugar coat the bad parts. Both the client and the attorney can deal with almost any situation if they are aware of the facts up front and not blindsided by them.”

It also begins with setting boundaries, even in cases that an attorney may be inclined to be more emotionally invested than normal. “If your client is the victim, you need to deal with them with some compassion. If your client is a bully, you need to be consistent with them,” said Meier. “I set boundaries with my clients: I don’t give them my personal number. You need to be soothing, and (to) clarify these boundaries.”

Finally, put yourself in the shoes of your client, as Smith explained. “Staying curious, asking yourself, for example, why a client may be stuck on a certain situation. You need to be patient and understanding. Most clients are afraid of something — what is their life going to be like after the divorce? What will their financial situation be? What their identity will be — if they’ve identified themselves as a husband — now (that they are divorced)? You can’t push someone, you need to be patient and listen to uncover the things that are really important to them.”

How Can You Set Realistic Expectations?

Since setting expectations is a necessary objective for a successful client/lawyer relationships, especially in family law cases where trust may be a difficult element to cultivate, how do lawyers handle this objective? It all starts in the initial consultation, where the lawyer sets the parameters.

“I never guarantee anything, because nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the courts,” said Levoy. “I give different scenarios of what to expect and never sell something I don't think I can get.”

As a mediator, Smith concentrates on what the client needs. “If you are able to focus on what you need, and what is important to you, you have more options, more of an opportunity to be creative in the solutions you come to. If you focus on what you need, rather than a specific outcome, it is easier to find a resolution.”

And sometimes, the "setting the bar low and rallying the troops" method can help prepare everyone involved. “I lower expectations because I know how bad the system can be. I let them know it will be difficult, but that I am their champion and I will do everything in my power to be effective and find the strength to go into battle,” said Meier. “I let them know how flawed the system, how hostile the court can be. We need to be savvy, know how to play the game, build a strategy.”

The combination of emotions and finances also tend to strain lawyer-client relationships. “Finances are an emotional issue,” stated Smith. “But most clients are open to working on this subject. It all boils down to being OK moving forward, rather than who was wrong (or at fault for the marriage ending).”

“I’d say it’s a combination,” added Levoy. “Money is a major factor in any divorce, but if children are involved, then custody becomes a big issue too.”

“Regarding the emotional aspect of divorce, I always encourage clients to be in therapy during the process,” he continued. “Whether they think they need it or not, it helps.  I'm not a licensed therapist, but if a client wants to pay me to listen to them all the time, I say I will, but then (tell them) 'don't be mad when you get the bill.'”

When Do You End a Difficult Relationship With a Client?

Unfortunately, sometimes the relationship deteriorates and the lawyer has to make a difficult decision: ending the representation of a difficult client. This is definitely a worst-case scenario.

“Withdrawing from representation often involves a ‘come to Jesus’ moment,” said Meier. “You need to be truthful that this is not working out together and file the motion (to end representation with the court). If you are too close to the trial date, sometimes the judge will reject the motion. At that point you just do the best you can and hope that the client can forgive you enough to work with you.”

Levoy added “If I feel the relationship isn't healthy, or working, I will address it. As an attorney, I have to act in the best interest of my client. If my client isn't helping me do that, or I feel there is a conflict between what my client wants and I what I feel is right, then I have to act accordingly.”

By carefully managing expectation, setting boundaries and maintaining good communication, you can build a working relationship even with a difficult family law client. But as a representative of these clients in the court of law, recognizing when to end this relationship is critical to all involved.




Bernadette Vielhaber

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