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It’s not easy to make a client angry. They come to us wanting help. They hire us because they trust us. They desperately want us to succeed, because our success is their success.
When they pick you, they feel like they’ve taken a big step toward solving the problem.
A new client is relieved to have you on board. They’re optimistic about having found a solution. They need to believe that hiring you was a smart decision.
The last thing they want is to get upset with you. They need you. You are the solution to their biggest problem.
Clients desperately want to believe that they made a smart decision in selecting you above all the others. They need you to be ready to step up, solve the problem, and become the hero. The last thing they want is to have to face the fact that they made a mistake.
How fast can you make a client question their decision?
Let’s play a game. The rules are: you can do anything you like so long as it upsets the client. The winner is the first lawyer who can cause the client to yell at a law firm employee, or email you in ALL CAPS.
Suggestions for you? I’ve got eleven of them detailed below. But I’m confident that you can come up with your own approach (just misspelling the client’s name or sending their confidential documents to another client can be a great start).
So how do they go from relieved-to-have-you-on-board to upset and yelling? How do they end up threatening your staff? How do they end up filing a complaint against you with your state regulatory authority?
Now, let’s keep in mind that they only yell when they really reach their limit. They don’t want to yell. They want to preserve the relationship. Getting angry at you means they have to acknowledge that they picked the wrong lawyer. They don’t want to be wrong. They don’t want to admit their mistake.
Before you jump in, let me remind you of something that will help preserve your sanity.
Remember: when the client gets mad at you–when the client screams–it’s them. It’s not you. They’re crazy, right? It’s not your fault. They have unreasonable ideas and expectations. It’s all them and if they would just get some help, this wouldn’t have happened. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t accept responsibility. Don’t allow yourself to get upset. You can win this game if you fortify your personal defenses, blame the client, and know in your heart that you’re doing everything right.
Here are my top ways to alienate a client, cause them to complain, and encourage them to trash your reputation. I learned these through trial and error, with the emphasis on error.
1. Decide they’re annoying
The quickest way to make a client angry is to decide you don’t like them, don’t want to deal with them, and can’t stand your interactions with them. Once you’ve made this key decision it’s all easier for you. The internal conflict is resolved. You no longer want to please them.
Your internal decision about the client drives your external behavior, and the client quickly picks up on the vibe you’re emitting. Come on, you know when someone doesn’t like you, right?
Once you’ve shifted from being grateful that the client picked you to being resentful that you’ve got to serve this person, all is lost.
With any luck, your team will jump on board to help build your resentment. When your team members support you in disliking the client, it’s even easier to do all the things I mention below.
2. Ignore them
Clients hire us as much for reassurance as for solutions. They need someone to explain that it’s going to work out. They need to be reminded that this problem can be solved.
Use your understanding of their emotional needs to deliver a punch straight to the gut. Ignore them.
Don’t return texts. Don’t respond to emails. Don’t call them back. Or take at least 24+ hours to respond. When they complain, be sure to explain that it’s your “policy” to get back to all clients within 24 hours. That really annoys them. They’re really impressed that the Target Pharmacy can call them back in 15 minutes, but their $450-an-hour lawyer takes 24 hours.
You get bonus points if you ignore the irate voicemail about how they don’t know what’s going on because you won’t call them back. Failing to return the message about failing to return the messages is a special touch. When they get annoyed about your lack of responsiveness, you should double down and ignore that communication, and all subsequent communications, as well.
3. Defend the opposition
Skip the empathy. Don’t try to understand the client’s emotional response to the problem. Focus on the law. Stay rational. Be objective.
Always explain things from the other party’s point of view. Explain what the other party must be thinking and why this seems reasonable. Never relate to your client’s perspective. When you provide the likely explanation for why the opposing party did what they did, be sure to sound sympathetic–to the opposing party.
4. Show zero emotion
Be passionless. Always be calm, cool, and collected. Never get enthusiastic about helping your client and their cause.
Instead of getting worked up on behalf of the client, be certain to remain ‘professional.’ Keep your distance. Be the dispassionate expert. Stay disconnected from any inner reaction you may have to the client’s plight. Let the client feel certain that you don’t care at all.
5. Be selfish
Always put yourself first. Schedule meetings according to your schedule, not theirs. Use the best parking spaces for yourself and your staff. Smoke in your office so that it stinks (I haven’t tried smoking, but I’ve made some really ‘fragrant’ microwave popcorn). Be creative: you too can figure out how to be selfish.
I’ve heard lawyers market their practices as ‘client-centered.’ Screw that, if you want to upset a client. A ‘lawyer-centered’ firm is a much more direct path to client anger.
6. Lie to the client and cover up the mistake
Running late and failed to file the papers the day you promised? Forgot to make the call you said you’d make? Neglect to correct the typo the client pointed out?
When something goes wrong, lie. Just make something up. I haven’t tried this one but I suspect it would work really well–especially if you lie about something the client can check up on, like when a document was filed with the court.
7. Blame others
When things go wrong–and inevitably something will go wrong–blame someone else.
Never take responsibility. Never own up to a mistake.
Find a convenient person to blame, come up with a good story, and stick to it. Who? Opposing counsel is a good choice. You can also blame the judge, the clerk of court, or someone on your staff.
8. Know it all
Make it clear that you know it all, you’ve done it before, and your client can’t possibly have a good idea. This is especially effective with engineers, physicians and college professors. Never ask the client about their thoughts or feelings.
When a client offers a suggestion, look at them smugly and ask “Who’s the lawyer here?”
Be sure to tell your clients what to think, how to feel, and what you’re going to do next. Whatever you do, don’t allow them to have input. After all, who knows better than you, right?
9. Fail to collaborate
File documents and send letters without showing them to your client first. Don’t let them see anything until it’s too late to make changes. After all, it’s your way or the highway.
10. Put the burden on your client
Delegate the tough stuff to your client. If you run into a problem, make the client solve it. Make the client hunt down the expert. Let the client figure out how to locate the missing person. Ask the client to dig through the documents.
Need tax advice? Send the client on a wild goose chase to find an accountant. Appraisal not delivered to your office? Have the client call the appraiser.
Why use your network of trusted professionals to help your client solve problems when you can make the client do the legwork?
11. Do as little as possible
Strive to be only slightly better than the other lawyers you deal with. Don’t aspire to excellence. Just do your best to be one notch up from the lowest common denominator. Explain to the client that you don’t need to be prepared because opposing counsel won’t be prepared. That’s always impressive.
Most lawyers, at least when they get started in practice, want to do their very best. They strive for excellence.
But as time passes, it’s easy to develop the habit of doing just enough to get the client the outcome they seek. Of course, sometimes applying the minimum effort required means we fall short, lose the case, and disappoint the client. That’ll really upset them; go for it.
The client doesn’t hate you yet? Try harder
I’m a big fan of surveying clients when the case is over. I like to know how likely they are to refer their friends, family, and colleagues after they’ve judged the work we’ve done on their behalf.
An angry, upset, irritated client can be counted on not to refer. In fact, they’ll usually go further and do their damnedest to damage your reputation around town. An angry person loves venting their spleen on Google, Yelp, and any other site they can find which accepts nasty reviews.
Congratulations: you’re going to be famous. Just not in a good way.
It’s not always easy to make a client really, really angry. But with thought, effort, and this list you can help your client achieve a state of apoplectic rage.
Don’t forget: the client is on your side because you’re on their side. They want you to win. When they get angry at you, especially when they get angry enough to say it to your face, that’s quite an achievement. It’s a bit like complaining to the dentist while they’ve got the drill in your mouth–it takes an especially awful dentist to warrant taking that kind of risk. Making a client angry enough to speak up is quite an achievement. If you can pull that off, then you must be doing something really special.