If you practice law long enough, you will eventually have a client that gets angry. They’re going to be mad at you or mad at a situation, but it is going to be your job to defuse the client’s anger to ensure that you don’t get a bar complaint filed against you, a malpractice suit filed, or just a bad review online. So, in today’s episode, I’m going to talk to you about how you handle an angry client.
Welcome to Episode 12 of the Josh Gerben Show. This is the show where we talk about the business side of the practice of law, I want to talk to you about something that’s a very difficult subject for a lot of lawyers to discuss, which is an angry client. Because an angry client, as we all know, could turn into a bar complaint or worse a malpractice lawsuit. that is something that we want to avoid at all costs in our practice during the course of our career.
When I opened my practice in 2008, the idea was not to take on one or two really sophisticated clients for all the trademark work, but to help a lot of small business owners. In order to make the practice work then and now, we have to literally have hundreds of clients a year to keep the lights on. This is a good problem and a bad problem in the sense that when you have hundreds of clients in a given year, if one client decides they’re no longer going to work with you, it doesn’t require you to shut your doors. It doesn’t require you to lay off employees. It allows you to just keep going. But the challenging aspect of having so many clients is we have so many different personalities and so many different people to ensure we’re meeting their expectations and keeping them happy. I’m not going to lie, it is a challenge.
So, in order to keep the vast majority of our clients happy, we’ve developed a lot of systems and a lot of best practices. I’ve talked about that in other videos, about how to provide really good client service. But inevitably, over the years, if you work with hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of clients as we have, somebody is going to get mad. It might not even be our fault, but they’re going to be mad. How you handle an upset client can make that situation a very small part of your day and week, or it can make the situation a huge part of your entire career. What I mean by that is that if you handle and defuse the situation quickly, then you move on, the client moves on, no problem, you’re on to the next issue. There’s there’s no road bumps that you have to worry about, you forget about it a couple of days later. However, if you handle the situation poorly and the client goes and files a bar complaint, now all of a sudden you have a career-changing event that you have to worry about. So, it is incredibly important to handle an upset client.
How to Prevent a Dissatisfied Client
The first thing I like to talk about when handling an upset client is how not to get there in the first place. As lawyers, we constantly preach to clients that just an ounce of prevention can avoid 10s of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in problems later. When it comes to handling upset clients, preventing that from even happening in the first place is going to be priority number one for any law practice. I think it’s really important to keep in mind the perception that clients come to you with. As lawyers, we do not have a good reputation. They immediately are concerned we’re going to charge them too much, that we’re not going to provide enough value and that we’re probably not going to care enough about their case. Those are things that people are just taught about lawyers.
A lot of people come to a law firm begrudgingly because they really need the help of a lawyer. But they’re worried about the process, they’re worried about the cost, they’re worried about the care that the lawyer is going to take for their case. As an attorney taking on a client, you need to understand if that client has those concerns and that perception, and immediately work to dispel them. Ensure you’re providing clarity on your fees upfront, ensure that when you provide work product it shows true value to the client, or that you explain in advance what the work product will look like so when the client sees it, they’re getting what they pay for.
You know, people don’t go out and purchase legal services every day, like they purchase clothing or other types of products and services in the marketplace. So, a lot of times they don’t even know what they’re buying when they agree to pay your retainer or pay your hourly rate. The only thing they know they’re doing is you’re trying to solve a problem. So, ultimately, you have to be able to bring the value to them, for them to feel that the fee they’re paying you is worth it. setting expectations in advance is just beyond critical to avoiding a client who later on gets upset about fees, or gets upset about the progress of their case. So, just make sure you’re taking your own advice when it comes to this because the more you can do in advance, the less problems you’re going to have on the back end.
How to Handle a Dissatisfied Client?
Now, when it comes to dealing with an actual upset client, I kind of divide them into two cases or categories.
- A client is upset with your services.
- A client is upset because you made a mistake.
What to Do When a Client Is Upset with Your Services
Let’s jump into when the client is upset but you really haven’t done anything wrong. It’s just that they’re mad about the fees, they’re mad about the progress and it is just what it is. You know, you’re helping them through a complicated legal issue that just takes time and costs a lot of money. So, how do you handle that? For me, there are three things that I look at. If I’ve got somebody that’s just angry about our process, or the cost and the fees of what they’ve paid us, I immediately get the person on the phone. This is a situation where email is just not acceptable. So, you have to have either a face to face or a voice to voice conversation. Because the person could tell a lot more about your sincerity in that moment than they’re ever going to be able to tell over an email. Additionally, if the person is going to have to respond to you over email, it’s very easy to send mean messages, whereas in person or over the telephone it’s a lot harder to be mean to someone that’s actually being nice and trying to help you.
The next thing I do is talk about money. Because to me, that’s the heart of most of the anger that this client’s feeling. They paid money and they don’t feel like they’re getting where they should be getting. We’re lucky to be in a situation where the vast majority of our engagements are a couple thousand dollars or less.
Additionally, I let the client that is I can’t resolve their concern on the phone call, I will simply refund them. 9.9 times out of 10 that immediately defuses the situation because the client now knows, I have no vested interest in this anymore. I’ve done maybe hours and hours of work but I’m literally just willing to give them their money back. Because I don’t want that bad karma in the world for our firm. I don’t want somebody walking around thinking negatively of us. You know, I know we didn’t do anything wrong, I know we did everything we told the client we could do, but for whatever reason, this person is not happy and that concerns me.
So, if you’re in a position to offer the person a refund, you should start there. If you’re $20,000 deep in a matter, and then they’re mad, obviously that’s a different story. But if you’re only a couple thousand dollars deep, I know it’s going to sting, trust me. Nobody likes just giving back money on work that you’ve done and done a good job on. But think about what you would pay to make a bar complaint go away, think about what you would pay to make a bad Yelp review or Google review go away. a couple thousand dollars starts to look really cheap. I almost guarantee you at the end of the year, when you get your taxes back from your account, and you look at your final numbers, giving that refund isn’t going to have rocked your boat in any significant way. Again, it stings in the moment but providing the client with the opportunity to take their money back will simply defuse the vast majority of situations and allow you to then get to the heart of the problem.
Typically, people don’t accept the refund. They say to me, “Hey, Josh, what do I need to do to get this finished or what do we need to do to get this over the goal line?” That’s why I explain to them everything we have been doing. I have empathy, I say, “I understand why you would be upset,” because I do.
If you have a good client on the other end, and they’re just having a bad day, or they’re mad at you for some reason, again, the vast majority of time just having taken the time out of your day to get on the phone or have a meeting. Having the humility to offer the person their money back so that they don’t feel like, and then explaining where things are, you might actually have a new friend at the end of the day. Because they’re going to trust you at a whole new level right now because they know you’re not in it for the money, you’re in it to help them.
If you have hundreds or thousands of clients over the course of the years of your law practice, you cannot possibly have everybody always be happy with you. Somebody’s not going to like you for some reason. It might just be because they woke up on the wrong side of the bed that day. But that’s just the reality of law practice and the reality of customer service. At the end of the day, we’re in a client service business, clients get mad, that just happens. How you deal with it will depend on how big of a problem you now have to deal with.
What to Do When You’ve Made a Mistake
The other part of dealing with an upset client is if you actually did something that’s wrong, and it caused a problem for the client, or it didn’t get the case accomplished in the right way for the client. How you deal with that is perhaps one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in your entire legal career. Now, I’ll start by telling you that if you made a really bad mistake, I think the first thing you should do is consult an Ethics Counsel because you may end up having a bar complaint or a malpractice lawsuit and you need to be aware of what steps you should be taking with that in mind. But I also think that you can avoid a lot of that. Because at the end of the day, if the client’s mad and you did something wrong, if you can fix the wrong, most of the time you’re not going to have a further problem.
So, as they always say, cover-up’s always worse than the crime. So, if there’s a mistake made, you have to own it. Again, always talk to your Ethics Counsel or any attorney that might be representing you in a matter, but I think that the best practical solution is to own the mistake. Explain over the phone or in-person to a client so that they can judge your sincerity what the mistake was, how it affects the case, and how you can correct the error. Have a plan, explain what you’re willing to do and obviously explain that it will not cost the client anything for you to take those actions.
If you’re contrite, if you offer your time and your services and the resources of your firm, the hope is that the client’s going to understand that you’re only human and that humans make mistakes. We’re all going to make mistakes. For anybody that’s ever been a lawyer for more than a couple of years, I guarantee you’ve made a mistake. Some mistakes are bigger than others. You just have to own them and you have to fix them. You have to fix them at no charge. Make sure you’re being very clear that you’re not billing them and that you’re taking care of the client and the issue.
I cannot implore upon you enough how important it is to defuse these situations as quickly as possible and to handle them as sincere as possible. Because avoiding all the things that could come from a client that’s upset, and all the things that they can do to cause so much harm to your career, just not worth anything that you could ever bill or any time that, you know, you need to take to fix the issue. All those things are so minor in comparison to the bigger issues that could come if you don’t handle the problem properly.
So, I’m going to leave you today with a story about something that happened lately to us. I think it’s a great example of how you can defuse a situation where a client’s getting upset. We had a client come to us and was essentially somehow convinced that the name of their product was so generic that it could not create a trademark concern. That, you know, that it would not, could not possibly be infringing on anybody else’s trademark. In the intake process, which I did personally, I said to the client, “Look, I really want to run a trademark search on this name because it’s the name of your product, and I don’t want to make any assumptions about that name not being in conflict with something else.” The client agreed. When we provided the trademark search back, I got an incredibly angry email from the client that said I had wasted their time and money because they already knew everything that I had put in the search and that there clearly wasn’t a problem.
However, in the search, I had actually identified what I thought was a very significant problem. I wasn’t sure why the client would say they had known this already because they had told me they didn’t think there was any problem. My report to them said that there might have been a very large problem. I’m like, wait a second, I did everything I told them I was going to do, a matter of fact, I even found something that they need to be aware of and they’re mad at me, it doesn’t make any sense.
I emailed them right back and I scheduled an appointment with them at a later time. I didn’t sit there and write this long email back. The next morning, we get on the phone and I said, “before we even get started, I want to tell you, if we leave this conversation you’re not happy, we’ll refund the fees for what we did, because we don’t want you to be unhappy. But I think there’s a lot of value to what we did and here’s why.” We went through it and by the end of the call, I had a couple of people from the client on the other end thanking me. I explained to them what I’m doing, I explained to them why I’m doing it and I explained to them that they could receive a refund if needed. Completely defused the whole situation and the rest of my week went on fine. This client is now happy and will likely come back or refer us to other people. This all came from an email that basically accused me of doing something wrong.
It’s just so important to not take that personally. Because it’s very easy to get an email where someone’s accusing you of something, and especially as a lawyer, our immediate reaction is to want to argue right back. You can’t argue. You can’t argue back with your clients. You have to defuse the situation, to do everything possible to make them happy, and just show them. Show them that you have their best interests at heart and make sure you do because at the end of the day, unfortunately, there are a lot of bad lawyers out there- just like there’s bad doctors or bad other people in other professions. But there’s also a lot of good and great lawyers. As long as you fall in that category, and as long as you’re honest and sincere with your clients, you’re likely to be able to defuse any situation that happens.
I hope you like today’s show. This is a tough topic. Nobody wants to talk about, “Oh, I made a mistake or my client’s mad at me.” But if you’re in a law practice, this is going to happen and you just have to accept it and you have to know how to deal with these problems. If you just handle them easily and you move on and it becomes something in the rearview mirror, it’s much different than having to handle it going forward and all the time and effort you’ll spend to deal with whatever complaints that a angry client might fight file against you.
If you enjoyed today’s show, please leave a review, comment, or like. I greatly appreciate if you could take just a couple seconds out of your day to do that for me. If you have a suggestion for another show or a topic you’d like to see me cover, please email me at email@example.com. We’re completely open to suggestions.