By Nadine C. Atkinson-Flowers
Very early in my legal career while practicing law in Jamaica, a client kept me on my toes with a criminal law matter. In one instance, it was clear I had not been given any written instructions about a matter and that client was getting increasingly agitated. A very senior lawyer sitting beside me passed me a note that simply said, “Get that in writing. You must always protect yourself.”
A February 2022 ABA article, “8 signs of a potentially untrustworthy client,” brought me back to that experience and got me thinking about the different types of clients I have encountered throughout my career.
How a client behaves can negatively impact a firm and its lawyers. Namely, untrustworthy clients can pose a professional responsibility risk. While the article zeroed in on untrustworthiness, I’ve had additional difficulties with clients and have developed some tips for how to manage them.
1. The helicopter client
I faced this type of client early in my practice, and because I was inexperienced, it was difficult to set some needed boundaries. They seemed to want to have me for themselves, which was fine, except for a little thing called reality. They usually called or showed up at the office without an appointment or at very inconvenient times, like when I was rushing into court, during another client appointment or late in the evening. They would say they were just passing by, saw my car in the parking lot and wanted to update me on something. With technology drawing everyone closer, it has made it difficult to draw a clear line between professional and personal time.
Tips: This client requires boundaries from the get-go, which means having some difficult conversations. Advise this client that appointments are the rule, but of course, emergencies and life challenges are the exceptions. You can be accommodating but not to the detriment of your other clients and overall practice.
2. The laissez-faire clients
These clients never meet deadlines, don’t show up for meetings, never contact you before a court date and rarely respond to your communications. I often wonder if these avoidant clients are simply bracing themselves for possible bad case outcome.
A lawyer recounted to me that they had a client who did not respond to letters, emails or phone calls. All of this was documented in the lawyer’s records. The client made a bar complaint stating the lawyer had not provided them with enough information about the case, and the lawyer was now refusing to refund the fees. The lawyer was able to provide the bar with significant proof about all the communication sent to the client as well as information about the work done on the client’s behalf. The lawyer was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Tips: You need to document all your efforts with these type of clients, keep track of all correspondence sent to them by every means, document your efforts to meet court-stipulated deadlines, record all steps to meet statute of limitation deadlines and make sure your efforts to respond to requests for evidence are recorded (a grim reality for immigration lawyers).
3. The lying client who denies it all, even in the face of the evidence
What do you do when a client denies allegations in a criminal case—or any other type of case—in spite of the proverbial smoking gun (that wasn’t planted)? As a junior lawyer, I was initially unsure of how to handle this. I had a client who vehemently denied allegations. We even agreed to a DNA sample, and when it came back, it proved the prosecution’s case. A quick guilty plea and a strenuous plea in mitigation had to follow.
Tips: One of my mentors in Jamaica suggested asking the client why the prosecution would have those specific allegations against them. Sometimes their version only helps in mitigation, sometimes it gives a fuller picture and sometimes the evidence is insurmountable.
At that point, our clients have to be advised that our job is not to lie for them but we can do a great mitigation plea.
4. The client who says they only need help with a single area
I learned this one the hard way in my immigration practice. The client came in asking about a specific family member benefit. The work was done. Soon after, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services asked questions about other family members, but I had not asked to see copies of those documents. If I had asked more probing questions, I would have been able to try to resolve issues early, which would have meant that their benefit would not have been delayed.
Tips: When the client declares that you “only need to sign off as the lawyer,” you must advise the client that because you are signing off as their lawyer, you must check everything and ask questions, even uncomfortable questions. You also need to see any document that they have previously submitted once there is a possibility of it affecting their case.
5. The client who declares that they checked the documents you provided
Many clients are not going to check through all the documents you provide to them. Sometimes we do not check as thoroughly as we should. I have had the experience of asking my clients to check the documents I drafted, and they respond that they have and all is correct. Because I am a sucker for pain and suffering, I sometimes recheck those same documents one more time and find basic errors on my part.
Tips: As the attorney, double check and triple check your documents, and don’t rely on your client’s review of them.
6. The clients whose expectations for their outcomes are unreasonable
There is an adage, “The client doesn’t want to know which law school you went to; they only want to hear if they are going to win.” Even if victory is near, the lawyer shouldn’t be tempted to guarantee a win. To give such assurances can open up the lawyer to various ethical issues and violations.
Tips: Instead, highlight the positives in their cases and encourage them to find additional evidence to shore up weak areas to help promote their chances of success.
7. The clients who insists you are too friendly with the lawyer on the other side
In Jamaica, where I also practice, it is a tradition to call the opposing lawyer in any matter—civil or criminal—“my learned friend.” It is a mark of respect and civility. I had a client who advised me he was firing me because I had called his soon-to-be ex-wife’s lawyer “my learned friend.” Despite my explanation and assurances that I could represent him with vigor, I was fired.
Tips: As lawyers, we must advise our clients that civility is crucial to the practice of law. Lawyers should strive to advise their clients that expectations of open hostility or rudeness toward the other side might backfire. And after those client go, you still will have to work with the same lawyers, judges and, potentially, the witnesses!
8. The best type of client
They have everything in order, are reasonable people and appreciate your efforts on their behalf, win or lose. We could all use more of these, and so we can but dream.
Nadine C. Atkinson-Flowers is admitted to the bar in Missouri and Jamaica. She practices virtually and in real time, and she focuses on U.S. immigration and Jamaican law. Her email address is [email protected]
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