Friday, December 31, 2010

The Volatile Client

Law Practice With One Eye Open
For Connecticut readers of the Nutmeg Lawyer, you are no doubt aware of the tragic shooting that occurred at a Manchester Connecticut Beer Distributor.  Reports indicate that Omar Thornton, a 34 year old disgruntled employee took out his rage on fellow workers killing nine people in his wake.  He had just left a disciplinary hearing where he was given the option of resigning or getting fired after being caught stealing beer.

The news of the shooting hit close to home.  Manchester was minutes from our law office.  Our staff members knew some of the victims and their families.  Working out of our street level office, I found my staff suddenly locking the front door.  Who can blame them?   As a law firm, we often dealt with highly charged emotional situations in areas like divorce, evictions, civil law suits, etc.  The disciplinary hearing that occurred Manchester could have just as well have been a Department of Labor hearing.   It could have been any number of highly charged emotional situations that we subject ourselves to in daily law practice.

As a college student, I had worked for a well known Connecticut criminal defense attorney. Before entering private practice, "Jack" had worked as a Federal Prosecutor. One of his favorite stories was an incident where a white supremacist lunged over the witness stand at him. He brushed off the incident as being part of the job. Following in Jack's footsteps, I eventually became a partner in a law practice with its own share of nutty stories. One of my favorite incidents was when I caught a particularly smug defendant in a blatant lie. Her reaction was almost Perry Mason like. The frustrated woman decided to answer my question by throwing her expensive purse at my head. Like Jack, I brushed off the "attack" as just another addition to my arsenal of cocktail party stories.

More and more, we are hearing stories of lawyers and judges being attacked by disgruntled clients. Angry at the outcome of a probate case, William Sterier shot California attorney Jerry Curry outside a California courthouse as cameras rolled. Atlanta Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes was shot by a rape suspect in open court. In 2005, a divorcing state trooper killed his wife and wounded attorney Julie Porzio outside a Middletown, Connecticut Courthouse. In Vernn Connecticut, Alice Morrin, an assignment editor at Fox 61 News was held hostage and then killed by her husband as the couple prepared to finalize their divorce. Her last text message was "I'm Dead. God"  Hartford attorney Nancy Tyler of OBrien Tanski &; Young, was held at  gunpoint by Richard Shenkman, her ad executive ex husband. Shenkman kidnapped his wife outside her City Place law office. Shenkman's attorney, Hugh Keefe, was waiting for him for that morning's compliance hearing. His first attorney withdrew citing a breakdown of the attorney-client relationship Shenkman never showed up for court. Instead he handcuffed his wife and took her home. Claiming the house had a bomb, Shenkman's demand list included that the judge reinstate his marriage and that a priest come to administer his wife her last rights. Tyler's husband is also accused of setting fire to the couple's beach house rather than turning it over per the divorce decree. Luckily, Attorney Tyler escaped.

The story had me reflect on my own law practice which includes divorce work. As attorneys, we are constantly being placed in emotionally charged situations. You never know what type of person will come through your office door. I have had many a client that resembled someone like Shenkman. It appears he was one of those clients that allow their matters to consume every free moment of their day. They approach their legal matters with an unhealthy, emotionally charged vigor. Clients that allow their emotions overcome common sense. I no longer brush off aggressive behavior from clients. If they are rude to staff or act inappropriate, I make every attempt to nip it in the bud. Is it a problem with communication or is the client just mad at the world? Do I need to withdraw from the case? You may know what I'm talking about. Those individuals that are so full of anger at a situation or person, they are unwilling to compromise a fair result. They yell at everyone and anyone. In divorces, they will fight over every last spoon. They will provide you with their own research. They will make you rethink your choice of practicing law.

 It might not even be your client. It might be a pro se defendant or the client of another attorney who simply has lost control. I once had a divorce where the couple could not decide on how to split up their personal property. The parties did not have much. It should have been a simple no fault divorce. The anger between the parties was palpable. Court hearings involved vulgar language, threats and constant interruptions. I told the client that if the behavior continued, I would immediately make a motion to withdraw from the case. Opposing counsel did the same. It was a wake up call for the clients. They eventually compromised on splitting their property via an "auction." Both parties were given a list of items. Each would have alternating turns to choose. (To be frank, that did not really work out the way I expected. Out of continuing spite, both sides decided to choose items that they knew the other one wanted. My client chose his wife's grandmother's costume jewelry and the wife chose the chainsaw. He took the makeup dresser and she took the tool bench.) Difficult clients running amok is nothing new in law practice. If you are in private practice, chances are you will run into a few pages short of a legal brief. If you have such a difficult client, here are a few tips to consider:

(1) Lawyers have a duty to control their clients. You should never make promises you can't keep. You should always communicate with your client and let them know possible outcomes in a case. Of course, sometimes this is not enough. Some clients are just inherently volatile. If you get one of these clients, it might not be a bad idea to pass on the case. And as Sgt. Phil on Hill Street Blues would say "let's be careful out there."
(2) Look for Red Flags. I usually pass on a case when I see one of my red flags. These flags include statements like "I don't want any money, it's the principle of the thing" , "this is a surefire case", or "I can do this myself, but I don't have the time." Danger words for me also include "conspiracy", "terrorism" and references to my wife paid off a "judge", "cop", or former "attorney" etc. Another red flag for me is when clients bring paperwork that is laminated.

(3) Document Everything. It's a good idea to make record of any promises you made. If you called the client, make sure you write it down. This is where a good law office management program comes in. Our office uses Tabs 3. It has a journal function where you can record time spent on each task. Make sure that your support staff does the same.

(4) Make an Effort to Manage Your Client's Expectations: Are you making promises you can't keep? In a divorce, are you promising to take their spouse to the cleaners? In a PI case are you guaranteeing a huge settlement before getting all the facts. Not only is this unethical, it also has the possibility of creating false hope in your client. They will start relying on the promise. They might make future plans. If they are the angry sort to begin with, not delivering on a promise will make them explode. Make sure you cover realistic expectations when it comes to billing, time, and possible results.

(5) Grab the Bull By the Horns: If your client is being unrealistic, let him or her know. Set them straight. Don't "yes" a difficult client in an effort to appease them or make unnecessary motions. Don't be afraid to talk tough.

(6) Don't be afraid to pass on a case. With the state of the economy, I know this can be difficult for some attorneys. In the end, however, a difficult client might take up more of your time and health than it is worth. See our earlier post "Knowing When to Say No to a Client"


Rich Cassidy said...

Great post. In my view this is the other side of the comment that practicing law is a good way to make a living, since, after all, it is inside work. True, but there are risks.
Your comments about efforts to reduce the emotional charge surrounding a case remind me of a divorce I was involved in long years ago.

Our client and his spouse owned many, many pieces of real estate, mostly raw land acquired over the many years of thier long marriage. They were prepared to fight over the value of each piece.

A wise judge could see many dollars and lots of court time wasted determining which parcels were worth what. But he knew our client knew the value of everything.

So he adopted the child's birthday cake solution. He told our client to go home and make two lists of the real estate. He told him: "You better make sure that each list is pretty much worth the same amount. When you come back to court, I am going to let your wife choose which list she takes. You will get the other one."

Case over!


Dirk said...

Hi there Adrian

Very interesting post - as per usual. Thanks for making me pause and think, as well as occasionally giggle out loud!

Quick question - why do you say a red flag is "I don't want any money, it is about the principle of the thing"? Is it a bad legal premise, or is is simply never that simple?

I've personally never been involved in legal proceedings (heck, I'm not even a lawyer!), but I've often thought that if I had unlimited funds, I'd correct daily wrongdoing by suing over principle.

Would love to hear your thoughts around this. I'm sure your arguments will be well thought through, and that you have very good reason for this statement.


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