Updated June 2021:
I wrote this originally when I had been practicing just four years. Since then I’ve experienced even more forms of racial and gendered harassment. Things like:
- Client’s not wanting me to represent them because I was not white
- Inappropriate/sexualized comments by outside parties
- More microaggressions than I can even count…
But even still my answer on how to respond to disrespectful clients has only changed slightly. That’s because while the landscape has changed—I notice that for new attorneys the fear of speaking up isn’t as prevalent as it used to be—I don’t think we’ve made as much progress in the profession that the risk of backlash isn’t still there. And there are plenty of managing partners who belong to the school of thought that thicker skin is just the solution for everything. So is there an actual solution that if you face disrespectful clients you can feel confident responding AND your employer backs you up? Like I said, just a few short years ago, it all depends on your work environment…
There’s no such thing as problem clients right? They are all great people who trust you and believe in your ability so much that they defer to you, right? RIGHT?! Ok maybe in fantasy land. The vast majority of clients aren’t too difficult to handle, but eventually, we will all have our fair share of “problem” clients. When you are just beginning your practice, it can be difficult to manage these clients zealously especially when they are pushing the limit with their behavior or when you have to manage gender politics with those clients. “Problem” can entail many things and in this post I’m only discussing clients who act disrespectfully towards you (this can range from name-calling to overt “romantic” advances).
Some people may suggest to ignore inappropriate behavior. It’s a reality that many work environment are hesitant to address these problems and often the person complaining is treated worse than the harasser. Thus, I can understand why ignoring problem behavior feels like the best option. However, it is also a reality that demeaning behavior can take a toll on you, and when you call out harassment you take away the control that they’re trying to impose on you. Of course, this is all easier said than done…
When I first started doing direct work with clients (as a law student), I didn’t know how to professionally draw the line when clients were misbehaving. I didn’t feel empowered as a clerk and I didn’t want to offend the client or make my supervisors mad.
In one instance, when I interned in criminal defense, I had to keep a client waiting for another attorney. The instructions were clear that I could not let this client leave until the attorney arrived. I waited with the client, and tried to ask a few questions that I knew the attorney wanted to know. Instead the client kept asking me if I was dating, was I happy, was I interested in dating, would I be interested in dating him… On and on, and no form of polite redirection seemed to work.
I felt super uncomfortable (duh, I was being harassed), but also anxious because I didn’t know what I could do to stop his inappropriate behavior without him leaving before the other attorney arrived. I also didn’t want him to complain if I showed any signs of annoyance or anger. More than anything, I just really wanted to impress my supervisors. It was shitty to feel powerless and disrespected.
Now that I have more experience, I can easily draw the line with problem behavior. I have no problem telling someone to stop their bad behavior. When a client is being belligerent, I don’t engage. If the call is unproductive, I get off the line and reconnect a different time. If I recognize behavior as racist, I don’t call out to start an argument instead I explain the process of how to find a new attorney if they’re not satisfied with my work. Gendered harassment, I play by ear just like we normally do with this type of harassment. But it’s easier now because I’m secure that my supervisor would back me up, and I’m not trying desperately to prove my capabilities as an attorney so that I can get a job. It’s actually a much different story when you’re new or still a clerk.
Navigating disrespectful clients will require a combination of knowing your work culture and knowing your own boundaries. For instance, if at your work (like when I interned in criminal defense), everyone puts up with abuse and disrespectful clients then that may be your normal course of business and it’s something you’ll have to learn to accept. But even if you accept that occasionally you’ll be called a name, you can still learn how to manage this behavior so that it doesn’t affect you. Ask a senior person that you trust and respect: how do you put up when Client X screams at you? Or, how do you react when a client calls you a bitch? Then try their responses in your own practice.
However, even if you feel like your work’s culture mandates that you put up with bad behavior; you should still know your own personal limit and decide when you’ll draw the line. A real and valid solution may be that you don’t want to work in a place where this behavior is accepted as the norm. Deciding to leave a place where mistreatment runs amuck is not a judgement call on you. Don’t apologize for demanding that clients treat you with respect. Remember, just because someone is paying for your services doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to treat you any way they want.
How do you react when a client is disrespectful?