How to deal with difficult clients

Gabriela Stoyanova is an experienced IT-lawyer and founder of Lawyer-GS Law Firm . Gabriela’s main spheres of concentration includes IT Law, Commercial, Property law, Contract drafting, and Negotiations. Previous experience of Gabriela also includes management of a leading Bulgarian law firm, overseeing all law office operations and participating in the most complex legal tasks. Gabriela has graduated from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” and done a specialized Masters in Law in Cambridge University on topics such as EU Law, UK Law, IP Law, Competition Law, and Intellectual Trade Law. Gabriela is passionate about Psychology and Alternative Dispute Resolution. She is a member of National Legal Aid Bureau and provides legal services to people who cannot afford them.

Difficult clients are part of business, we deal with them every day and we need to be aware of the types of personalities we are working with. What is difficult client anyway? According to statistics some of the categories below fall under the heading of difficult clients:

  • Clients who are unsure of what they want;
  • Clients for whom everything is an emergency;
  • “Bean counting” clients or clients who are extremely concerned about the budget;
  • Clients who believe they can do what you do in a much shorter time frame than possible;
  • Clients who decide that they want to go in a completely different direction when you have delivered the finished project already.

Although this is not an exhaustive list, these are one of the most common types of difficult Clients.

What is the appropriate behavior when dealing with Clients, including difficult ones?

When dealing with people we need to be aware of the tree types of behavior patterns people exhibit when interacting with others. These three types of behavior are: passive, aggressive and assertive. Aggressive behavior is maintained through the belief that the person has more rights, but fewer responsibilities, and more personal worth than others. Passive behavior on the other hand involves failing to express our wants, needs or feelings or communicating them appropriately. Characteristics of assertive behavior include expressing your feelings, needs, ideas, and rights in ways that don’t violate the rights of others.


Professionals such as lawyers need to act assertively when dealing with Clients. A lawyer can be assertive without being aggressive and obtain superior results for their Clients contrary to the popular belief that aggressive lawyering is more advantageous. Aggressive lawyers benefit nobody other than the lawyers themselves which in a long-term relationship is proved to be counterproductive and inefficient.

Other characteristics of an assertive behavior are the steady tone of voice and slow speaking, maintaining eye contact and active listening. According to Paul Ekman, psychologist and a co-discoverer of micro expressions, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world, the best evidenced vocal expression of emotion is the pitch – it raises when the person is upset. This is especially true when the experienced emotion is negative, especially fear or anger.


According to Roger Fisher and William Ury, members of the Harvard Negotiation Project, founders of the doctrine for “Principled Negotiation”, Active Listening improves not only what you hear, but also what the client say. If you pay attention and interrupt occasionally to say, “Did I understand correctly that you are saying that…?” the other side will realize that they are not just killing time. They will also feel the satisfaction of being heard and understood. Standard techniques of good listening are paying close attention to what is said, asking the other party to spell out clearly exactly what they mean, and requesting that ideas be repeated if there is any uncertainty.


Another important negotiation technique along with the active listening is focusing on the problem, not on people or the so called “Be Hard On The Problem, Soft On People” doctrine of Roger Fisher and William Ury. In their book “Getting to Yes. Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.” they develop the idea that listening to the opponent with respect, showing them courtesy, expressing appreciation for their time and effort, and emphasizing your concern with meeting their basic needs proves to be extremely good tool in achieving the best results and the Best Deal On The Table. Being Soft On People and at the same time Hard On The Problem makes a psychological dissonance in your opponents that they will be trying to overcome. This will make both sides keener on finding solution together and inventing options for mutual gain, the latter of which will bring at the table assets and opportunities not even set. This will definitely not be the case while sticking to your positions and not listening to what the other side has to say.


Another good thing a lawyer can do to have a happy client is to Exceed Client’s Expectations. How can we do that? One way of exceeding our clients expectations is by making them feel special – welcome them from the door, don’t make them wait, call them by name, do not interrupt, etc. The client have to be allowed to say what they have come to say and be listened to attentively and carefully.

It takes more than a high IQ to be a good lawyer. Lawyer’s emotional intelligence has a marked impact on the ability to build strong client relationships, negotiate effectively, persuade and ultimately be a good lawyer.


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