Legal Practice

Who’s the Daddy? Managing Clients

So there’s so much to discuss when it comes to the #SohoKaren situation and let me say emphatically her behavior may have stemmed from a lot of issues, but the most troubling one is the racism. Y punto.

But what I want to talk about here is her hat. Ok, not just the daddy hat, but everything that led to an interview with a daddy hat and the importance of client management. Managing clients, especially difficult ones, is a skill set we must develop sooner rather than later. A common misconception is that we say yes to every client whim, but that is a disservice to the client. While we should do everything we can to reach client’s goals within the confines of the law, we have to remember that our mandate includes providing good counsel, which means knowing how to offer realistic advice and bad news. Ultimately, it helps no one to let clients run amuck. And I want to emphasize here that it’s common for emotions to run high in legal cases. It’s not because clients have a propensity to be difficult, but rather they may be facing one of the most stressful events of their life and emotions run hot and high. That’s why we must always strive to be the level-headed, objective counselor that they need.

One. Taking Control. You have to become comfortable taking control of a case and telling clients the good and the bad that will happen with their decisions. I like to think that we are the captain of the ship and the client is the one that decides the destination. This means that client will have lots of ideas and requests on how to get to their goal, but you determine the right theory, processes, and steps to take (excluding the decisions that belong only to a client, i.e. accepting a settlement offer). Outside of those exceptions, when they push for a bad decision, you need to explain, clearly, why it’s not viable. You also have to know what your next steps will be if they go against advice of counsel (and tell them before they make the decision). Sometimes knowing they may lose their attorney is enough to jolt them back to letting you take the reins.

Two. Finding Balance. When I did direct rep, I would often tell new attorneys that you can’t care about the case more than the client. And generally that’s true and an especially good reminder in legal aid where there is an abundance of savior complexes and boundary issues (a post for another day), but it’s actually a balancing act. While you can’t be the support for every issue your client faces, if your client is crashing and burning; if they have a tendency to grow despondent; if other issues in their life impact their ability to work on their case, you have to identify what’s holding them back and figure a way to work around it. This means having direct conversations, thinking creatively for solutions, and providing realistic advice and referrals to resources, when appropriate. No sugarcoating the consequences of uncooperative behavior. Sometimes they need that reminder in order to prioritize their case.

Three. Think Proactively. Your job also means seeing all the weaknesses in the case and in the client and then finding ways to mitigate. The moment I saw the Gayle King interview I thought about my pre-trial professor who emphasized how the way our clients are perceived is as important as the case. His example including telling a client’s wife who was being deposed on video to take off a necklace emblazoned with the word a curse word so as to not throw off the eventual jury. It’s that type of proactive guidance, of even small details, that clients need from you.

Which bring me to the conclusion that if, for some odd reason, I thought a media interview was a good idea and I told a client to wear professional clothing, but they appeared wearing a crop top and refused to take off an inappropriate hat–I would have faked a panic attack before letting the interview take place. Just kidding, kind of… But seriously, in a situation like that where it’s clear the client is recalcitrant and uncooperative rather than just shrugging your shoulders and suffering through it—you make the hard decision of canceling the interview. If the client fires you, so be it. Because the second lesson here is that while client management is for the client’s best interest, a side-effect is that it impacts your reputation. If you do it poorly it sticks with you. If you do it right, no one notices—and that’s the goal! For everyone’s benefit, you must become skilled in providing effective and strategic counsel–actively steering your ship–regardless of how difficult it may be.