Graduating from law school and passing the bar exam in the state(s) wherein you plan on practicing is a tremendous feeling. You have spent countless hours studying, reading cases, preparing for mock arguments, enduring final exams, and then prepared for the bar exam and now you have passed and are ready to commence the actual practice of law. However, there is an abundance of learning that you have to do because there are many practical implications of the practice of law that are simply not taught in law school. Those that have had the benefit of a family member, employer, or mentor who is an attorney may have shed some light on these points; however, listed below are some practical tips that every newly admitted attorney can benefit from in addition to continuing to expand your abilities as an attorney.
What do You do When a Client Becomes Hostile?
A client retains you to solve a problem for them. As their attorney (again depending on the case type) you will often learn their most personal secrets as the client confides in you to complete the task(s) for which you have been retained. However, the attorney-client relationship is just like any other relationship in the sense that the relationship can experience pitfalls, and one party may become dissatisfied. Generally speaking, dissatisfaction that a client feels can be caused by a variety of things, including but not limited to lack of progress in the case (which is often beyond your control), differences in strategy or general frustration had by the client caused by something that has nothing to do with the case but is impacting it nonetheless.
The client then becomes hostile toward you as a result of any combination of the above noted potential causes (or something that I have not listed), and now you have to address the issue because the client is angry and they are taking it out on you. Thus, the question becomes, what do you do?
The answer is not cut and dry by any means. First and foremost, if you have a senior attorney that you have to answer to where you work (managing partner or simply your boss), you need to bring the matter to their attention and allow them to handle the matter because that is not necessarily your place to do so.
However, if you are a solo practitioner, what do you do to solve the problem? As noted above, there is no boilerplate answer. As you continue to practice in similar areas of the law, you will learn that the problems are often similar, the only factor that changes is the people. Most clients in a divorce case experience somewhat similar problems, so as you learn to address a client that might be hostile, you will be able to better navigate the problem and calm the client and minimize their hostility if it arises with future clients. However, this still begs the question of “what do you do when a client becomes hostile?” You have to have a conversation with the client (in the person of course) and determine what is going on and why their attitude and demeanor have suddenly changed.
As noted above, there could be any number of causes that have caused them to become hostile, but you will not know until you sit down with them and have a conversation. This is why it is so imperative to establish a solid foundation of trust with your client from the outset so that they know that they can come to you when an external stimulus creates a problem in their lives. A hostile client is not thinking, which means that their judgment is clouded, and it is your job as their attorney to help them work through whatever is creating this new problem in their life, causing the attitude shift, and it is your job to bring them back to being rational. You also need to reassure them that whatever has created this new issue cannot be allowed to impact the case as a whole.
It is imperative to understand that sometimes having a sit down with your client to try and determine what has caused their attitude to suddenly change will not work. As I said, the attorney-client relationship is a relationship and relationships (business, personal, or otherwise) ultimately have a natural end. Despite your best efforts to reassure the client or to try to determine the underlying cause of the problem, the client may not know or despite your attempts will not disclose the issue to you. If you reach that point with the client, then at the same time, you need to ask the client if they no longer want to continue with you as their attorney? Do not be ashamed or afraid to ask this question, as this is not an uncommon occurrence. If the client is not disclosing the cause of their hostility and is refusing to work with you, then there is not much that you can do. Sometimes the client needs a change of representation and needs to find another attorney that better suits their current legal needs if that person is no longer you. Circumstances such as this are not uncommon, and you have to learn to accept the fact that you cannot always assist everyone, which is entirely okay.
Dealing With a Hostile Opposing Counsel
Attorneys are people too. They have emotions, feelings, and opinions. It is not uncommon for those emotions and opinions to influence their representation of their client. Clients seek attorneys that they feel reflect their personalities, which makes perfect sense. If you are hiring an attorney, you want to hire someone who believes sees the case in the same manner as you because then that attorney will be determined in advocating for your position because they agree with that position. However, being an advocate for some can often be taken a step further in the sense that the opposing client may have a sincere disliking for your client and then the attorney assumes that same attitude and projects that attitude in all of your interactions with that attorney. The attorney’s demeanor makes it virtually impossible to complete any tasks because they are so fixated on being hostile toward your client (because their client is hostile toward your client) and you cannot get through to the attorney to have an intelligent conversation. So what are you to do?
The answer is simple; you work your case the same manner that you would work any other case and you continue to treat that opposing attorney and their client with respect (even though they may not be treating you and your client with respect). I am not saying that you concede to their demands, but you maintain the reputation that you have built for yourself, and you do not lower yourself to their level and become like them. If they are rude and condescending in open court, you do not respond with similar commentary; you maintain your reputation and professionalism because the Court will see what is going on and likely take not of it. The hostile attorney is very similar to a bully; they thrive off of the belief that they think that they can intimidate you. However, all that you have to do is ignore their conduct, and sometimes you can minimize their behavior by simply ignoring it. I have personally had this happen in cases where the opposing attorney’s hostility toward my client and me made no sense given the nature of the case. However, I let opposing yell and scream in court, and when they got it out of their system, and the Judge saw that I was letting them do so, I responded calmly and argued the facts of the case to obtain the proper result for my client. You have to be the bigger person and not allow your opposing counsel’s behavior to adjust the focus of what is important; namely, advocating for your client.
“The opinions expressed herein are solely opinions of the author and are by no means to be referenced in any pleading, document, or to be used for republication in any platform whatsoever.”
This series will continue next month with part four which looks at how to handle an overwhelming practice.
To read part one, please see What Law School Doesn’t Teach You Part One.
To read part two, please see What Law School Doesn’t Teach You Part Two.