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The Client From Hell

By Michael Hanks, Esq.

The primary purpose of this column is to improve the attorney/client relationship for the benefit of the client. In an earlier article, I examined the characteristics of a smart client, which I defined as one whose personality traits and attitudes served to enhance or improve the attorney/client relationship.

It is as important to understand those traits and attitudes which create a client from hell. Among these are the following:

  1. I have been to four other attorneys, but none of them can understand my case. This client is attorney shopping. Four attorneys have evaluated this case and either did not want it or could not work out a satisfactory fee arrangement with the client. There is no reason to believe the fifth attorney will be any more successful.
  2. I know there is not much involved in terms of money, but for me it’s a matter of principle. This client is acting out of current emotion and will fold quickly when the economic reality of litigation hits. Further, the client’s zeal will wain naturally over time, and the economics of the case will become his primary focus. Unfortunately, this will probably happen after the attorney has incurred a significant amount of time (and the client expense) in chasing the client’s dream or venting the client’s spleen. In most civil cases, the bottom line is and should be money. The most successful lawsuits are those in which the client takes this perspective from the outset. Principle should have nothing to do with it.
  3. In order to save money, I have drafted these documents myself. I just want you to give them a quick review and let me know if they are okay. This client is looking for legal advice on the cheap. Most transactional attorneys will tell you that in most instances they would prefer to prepare the documents themselves. Not only is the attorney using known documents with which he is familiar and comfortable, but he is able to control the timing of their preparation and their turn-around time upon revision. Moreover, it is often times harder and more time consuming to review a layman’s document for legal adequacy, than for the lawyer to create the document initially. Finally, for going through all this headache, the attorney ends up with a reduced fee because the client is looking for a bargain in the first place.
  4. I don’t necessarily expect to win, but I would just like to slow this guy up and give him a headache. This client is looking for an obstructionist, not an attorney. The essence of good lawyering, whether in a business dispute before it goes to court, or once in litigation, is to realistically evaluate the client’s position and advise the client accordingly with the underlying economics being the primary focus. The attorney is also obligated to zealously defend the client’s interests within the bounds of the law. However, it is rarely in the client’s best interest to act in less than full good faith in the transaction and to seek an efficient resolution. Moreover, such an attitude almost certainly constitutes an ethical breach by the attorney. This kind of person should represent himself in court, since he knows his cause is lost and all he wants to do is create headaches and delay. That will do it for all parties involved.
  5. To save money I want to represent myself in this lawsuit, but I want you look over my shoulder and sort of supervise me. In most, if not all instances, the attorney is ill-advised to accept a client on such terms. The attorney loses control of the litigation, incurs significant responsibility to the client and ends up getting underpaid. He also may end up getting sued. In order for an attorney to be effective in litigation, he must be in full control of all legal aspects from the outset. In any other arrangement the attorney is unable to provide independent, objective advice to the client at all critical stages.
  6. I am not saying we lie to them, but what if we just lose this document? This client is asking for the attorney to violate the ethics of the profession (and perhaps permit perjury). Clients who solicit such conduct not only reduce themselves in the eyes of the attorney, but insult the attorney and the legal profession at the same time. Probably not the beginning of a beautiful relationship. The attorney shouldn’t want that client, and that client shouldn’t want that attorney.
  7. I need legal help but I can’t afford it. I’m sure my attorney will understand. This is a frequent problem, given the cost of legal services and their importance to survival in our society. Fee arrangements need to be addressed at the first stages of the relationship, and they need to be candidly evaluated by all parties. Fee disputes create significant problems in the attorney/client relationship, just like money disputes create significant problems in the marital relationship. Such conditions usually result in a large balance owed the attorney by a client (who is unable and will probably also be unwilling) to pay the balance. In such a relationship, one party or another, usually both, lose.
  8. I can’t afford your services now, so I’d like you to take an interest in the deal instead of fees. The problem here is twofold: (A) the attorney acquires a conflict of interest and (B) the attorney’s cash flow is adversely affected. Accordingly, your file can become a headache and one the attorney ignores.

While it is not illegal (or even unethical with disclosure) for the attorney to enter into such relationships, they are usually ill-advised. It will almost always happen that the client demands more of the attorney’s time than the attorney feels obligated (or able) to give, or the client “overpays” for the attorney’s time by giving him or her too large a percentage of the business. If you are going to make such an arrangement with your attorney, the client should always have an independent attorney review the transaction on behalf of the client. The risks of such arrangements are real and can be very expensive.

If you recognize any of these traits in your attorney/client relationship, be careful. The results can be devilish.

To speak directly with Attorney Michael Hanks about a business, real estate, estate planning, elder law or prenuptial agreement matter, contact the Law Offices of Michael Hanks at (916) 635-0302.

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