Difficult clients: three strategies for handling tough personalities

A group of business people sitting around a conference table.

As featured in the Law Society’s InsideOut magazine – January 2023 edition

Dealing with difficult internal clients can bring a great deal of stress to our work. Let’s say it: it is hard.

Many in-house lawyers receive limited training for developing strong people skills and navigating conflict in the workplace. Difficult personalities, however, offer many opportunities for building emotional agility and contributing to your personal and professional growth.

Although not all work relationships can be truly and permanently fixed, more often than not, there is room for progress.

The following strategies will help you better navigate friction and stay focused on your main goals as an in-house lawyer: responding productively, delivering effective legal advice and creating collaboration in the workplace.

1. The disengaged client: Ramp up your initiative and know what you need to get done

Frequently, the disengaged client is a client who is unfamiliar working with lawyers – or a professional whose primary focus is managing up.

These clients may have had limited interactions with the legal function and have possibly developed an inclination to see in-house lawyers as paperwork-only contributors.

Right or wrong, these clients have other priorities and tend to provide scattered information about a project’s progress and what kind of legal support or input they really need.

They have little time for the lawyers – even less time for meeting with them.

When beginning-to-end discussions are needed, you are better off taking the initiative to set up client meetings. This can create opportunities to finally understand what legal advice or contribution is needed from you, by when, and how these fit into the bigger picture.Each client has a preferred communication method. Try to work out the one that works best with your client: email, face-to-face meeting, end-of-the-day chat. Try out different methods; more of the same emails every Tuesday is unlikely to unlock different results.

Remain open minded about a different outcome, however. Are there any times when the dynamic has seemed to work better? Could you build on those success stories?

Even though there is no real replacement for ongoing discussions that foster trust and collaboration, this style is an opportunity to ramp up your initiative and develop emotional agility.

This includes moving on, DIY-ing more and prioritising effectively, as well as providing that structured communication flow (arranging internal meetings, follow up calls and summary documents) that is lacking from your client

You’ll stay stuck in frustration if the disengagement in your communication dynamic remains unaddressed

2. The ever-present and overdemanding client: focus on progressing the real work, not addressing all the queries

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the ever-present and over-demanding client is a colleague who works non-stop – and expects others to do just the same.

These clients may set unreasonable deadlines and tend to be openly or indirectly critical about those who do not keep up with their working style.

Overdemanding clients may also tend to micromanage every little step and get overly involved in the details.

The micromanager client may be a professional who receives (or perceives receiving) a high level of pressure from the top and cascades the same to their resources and colleagues with little to no filter.

Finding out what is most important to your client and their real agenda is a helpful step. Often, what is most important to your client is where their greatest stress level lies.

Building interpersonal resilience in this case requires being clear, perhaps repeatedly, about what is expected and by when and managing expectations by employing factually based language: “I need to engage with this department and this other department before getting back to you, and I will arrange face-to-face meetings with both this week. I will provide you with an update on Friday: would that work for you?”

The overdemanding client is unlikely to change; your aim here is nonetheless to reduce your stress level by ensuring you are not hooked into their hectic pace.

If you are asked the same thing twice, flag it (rather than venting about it to a colleague) and restate the deadline you both agreed on.

Staying focused on progressing the real work, rather than replying to every single query, is a strategy to detach you from the real stress.

The professional growth opportunity in this scenario resides in gradually building the trust that is needed to develop better interactions with your client.

Establishing trust requires time, making room for trial and error and lots of patience – both with yourselves and with your client. Arm yourself with plenty.

3. The high-ego client: solve the problem, not the delivery style

The high-ego client can be either a very capable and skilled professional or someone whose perception of their contributions is off-sync with the perspective of the majority.

In both cases, these are the clients who know it all and are often described by their colleagues as the ones ‘who do not listen’. Their focus is solid on their contributions and their ideas.

High-ego clients may require extra care in communication. If your recollections of your action points are repeatedly different from theirs, clear summaries in writing will help to keep everyone on the same page and minimise room for friction.

Learning to pick the right battles and remaining coherent with your professional values can be testing at times; interactions with these clients are often triggering.

Keeping the focus on the problem, rather than on their delivery style, is essential for directing the conversation forward. At the end of the day, what is most likely needed from you is your professional contribution as a lawyer. Closing a deal, meeting the deadline or providing a workable way forward is where to concentrate your efforts.

Your growth opportunity in this scenario includes cultivating a resilient open-mindedness. We tend to crystallise polarised views when dealing with high-ego personalities (‘they think they are always right’).

By regularly challenging your assumptions and asking others you trust to question your perspective, you will, however, naturally direct your mind and efforts to the real problem you both need to solve.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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