The Pareto principle states that 80 per cent of results are derived from 20 per cent of input. This 80/20 rule can describe difficult clients: 80 per cent of your grief will come from 20 per cent of your clients.

Knowing how to handle that 20 per cent is imperative to a healthy practice.

For sole practitioners and small firms, difficult clients can be overwhelming. Unlike at larger firms, you may not be able to easily transfer the file to another lawyer. However, ignoring the fact that a client is difficult can compromise your representation of them. The following are 10 suggestions for managing difficult clients.

Conduct a telephone screen: A telephone intake before the client enters your office will help screen problem clients. For example, a person who calls you just before their limitation period expires suggests they will require a significant amount of educating. It could also signal a lack of investment in their case, as they did not care enough to protect their rights early on.

Never be the third lawyer on the file: As part of your intake process, find out if the client is switching lawyers. If so, obtain authorization to speak with the previous lawyer to find out why the relationship ended. A lawyer forced to terminate the relationship due to non-payment of the retainer, or breaching other terms of the engagement, should be red flags for you. As a general rule of thumb, while you may be the second lawyer on the file, never be the third.

What is the client’s motivation?: During the intake, in addition to canvassing what the client wants, find out why they want it. If they want revenge or justice without regard to costs, alarm bells should sound. If they are angry and argumentative, want to sue their past lawyer or have unreasonable expectations at the outset, be prepared to spend considerable efforts educating the client if you take them on.

Review the file before taking it on: If you are referred a file by another lawyer, ask to review the file and meet the client before taking the matter on. This will allow you to properly assess the file and determine whether you can work with the client.

Do not act for family and friends: What may seem like a small matter or a simple favour for family or friends will often be more complicated than anticipated. Your relationship with that person may also cloud judgment or lead you to relax your policies for them.

Understand why they are difficult: A client may be difficult for myriad reasons. Perhaps they suffer from a mental illness or a serious medical condition. They may be overwhelmed, resentful or scared about the legal process, and are transferring their negative emotions on to you. Once you have an idea of what makes a client difficult, you can create a plan to deal with it.

Educate, educate, educate: The key to dealing with most difficult clients is educating them. Take the time to talk to them and explain the legal process, even if you have to do it repeatedly. Report regularly as this will help the client understand their file and alleviate concerns that nothing is being done. Educating a client will build a positive relationship that lasts throughout the file.

Establish ground rules: Ground rules will set expectations. Have policies for missed appointments without reasonable excuse, non-payment of retainer and treatment of staff. A breach of these policies can be cause for terminating the relationship. Also, establish phone and email expectations. Limit after-hours correspondence to mitigate the expectation that you are at the client’s disposal.

Explain hourly rates for all staff: Clients must understand that your staff’s time is valuable. When reviewing your hourly rates, include the rates for your staff. This will dispel the illusion that only the lawyer’s time counts and minimize the never-ending calls to support staff.

Stick to your rules: Policies with the best of intentions are meaningless unless we follow them. This can be painful, but it must be done to protect yourself, gain your client’s respect and create a harmonious office.

Everyone has difficult clients. The best way to avoid such clients is to not be retained by one. If you do have one, take the time to educate them and establish rules and expectations. Knowing how to handle a difficult client properly can be the difference between an unhappy client that degrades your reputation and a happy client that sends you future business.