This happens more than any of us would like to admit.
Clients come in all types and whilst we strive to be empathetic, professional, and deliver excellent service, it must also be acknowledged that sometimes it can be difficult not to get a bit miffed. The truth is there are certain clients who are going to rub us up the wrong way.
Occasionally though, this interpersonal dissatisfaction moves beyond a low-level ‘not getting on with someone‘ to something much more malignant. Frequently this is due to the problematic person being a Difficult Individual.
A Difficult Individual is someone who operates with a predictable cluster of behaviours, beliefs, and personality types which are guaranteed to create harm and havoc wherever they go.
No doubt you have heard the labels Narcissist, Machiavellian, and Psychopath. However, I tend to avoid using them for the simple reason that they are clinical terms. No matter how much you or I strongly suspect a client may be deserving of this designation, the chances are we are never, ever going to receive any official ‘sign-off’. Due to this, I avoid the muddy water created by using undiagnosed diagnostics as much as possible.
Instead, I introduce my legal clients to a simple set of metaphorical handles. These enable them to recognise and differentiate some of the typical presentations of these types of complex characters, without needing to make any claims to Personality Disorders.
Why is this client getting on my nerves?
Once you have realised that you have a client that is causing you heart-sink or nights of feverish sleep, you need to quickly try and work out which category this client is likely to fall under. This is the first step in creating a strategy to protect your well-being.
This is by far the most common type of challenging client.
They are highly distressed, emotionally volatile, disorganized, and overwhelmed. They have a complex backstory, are regularly in a state of crisis, and seem perpetually to be looking to you to ‘save them’.
These clients may start with flattery, telling you that you are wonderful, that they couldn’t operate without you, but their approach is often the result of having learnt to be extremely interpersonally co-dependent. These clients have often been in relational situations where they have not been encouraged or allowed to problem-solve and make decisions, as a result they will look to you to provide all the solutions.
Should you take up this invitation, you are likely to regret it later. This adoration is always short-lived and when, at some future point, you fail to meet this client’s idealised standards, you are likely to receive some serious backlash.
The main thing to remember is never to step into this client’s whirlwind. You may be appalled at what this client has experienced or is currently experiencing, and feel strongly motivated to do whatever you can, but always be mindful whatever your working relationship, being a ‘helper‘ is never anybody’s professional role. You can be kind, and compassionate, but always whilst keeping a professional distance. ‘Distance’ here does not mean ‘cold’: it means not emotionally over-identifying.
From the outset, you need to communicate to all onboarding client’s your non-negotiable role boundaries. Whilst a certain amount of pastoral care is expected, it must be clearly explained that your predominant role is to advise on the legal aspects of their case: you do not provide therapy. Should the client require therapy, you will provide them with a list of providers from which they can chose.
By establishing these rules at the outset, this type of client will have already been prepared for the possibility of suggested onward referral and will not react emotionally, assuming they have been singled out.
Should you be considering going-solo with this type of client, be aware that a therapists’ competencies are honed to focus on building a client’s resilience, independence, and self-determination. Without this required core training, the likely outcome of your attempt is that, not only can your client not think straight, but neither can you.
For Client – Therapy
This is the client who is actively undermining you.
It might start subtly (or not so) but especially amongst earlier-career lawyers these clients cause an extreme amount of distress.
Using seemingly throw-away comments about age, experience, religion, and gender, these clients will quickly create second-guessing. A lawyer is going to find themselves hesitating when they speak, surreptitiously looking for feedback on whether what they have said is acceptable, and generally spending hours anxiously doubting themselves.
The problem with this client, is they aren’t necessarily obvious: their covert aggressive attacks lie on the interpretative edges. Lawyers commonly ask me ‘Did they mean that?’ ‘Am I taking it wrong?’ or ‘Am I over-acting?’. This Difficult Individual is all about undermining your foundational self-belief, so if they go unnoticed it does not take long for a professional to have clear symptoms of anxiety which significantly hinder their professional performance and satisfaction.
Taking note of your internal reactions to all clients is important. Your psychological and physical reactions are continually signalling important information to you. Just as a client can make you feel good, so can a client make you feel bad. Pay attention.
If you have a client who is chronically making you question your professional capacity, it is quite likely you need to do some work on your own internal triggers. The underlying issue may be something relatively straightforward such as, the need to work on your confidence and self-belief, or it may be a more complex issue stemming from your own life experiences. In either circumstance, it would be best to do some personal therapeutic work to strengthen your psychological resilience.
For Lawyer – Generalist Therapy or Coaching
This is by far the most difficult type of client.
They are relentless, cannot be diverted, and know everything better than you. These Difficult Individuals are delusion, dominance, and coercion personified. These are clients who don’t care if they lie, cheat, evade, or manipulate – they are all about the ‘win’.
If you are working with them, it would be a serious error in judgement to assume you will be treated differently as a professional – you won’t. Do not have any expectation of respect or appreciation, you are merely a means to an end. Do not have any pretension that you can out play them, you cannot. Do not believe you are part of a team; you are merely another piece on their chessboard.
These clients will provide falsified bank accounts for submission; will demand you make crazy demands of the other party; will become fixated on trivialities which serve no logical, long-term benefit to their case; and will generally treat you as an over-paid minion who should be available 24-7 to do their bidding. And they are likely to leave their accounts unpaid.
Never, ever underestimate their pathological drive to win in every single moment; they have no future orientation, no empathy, and tenacity at the obsessive level. They are quite simply a nightmare to work with.
Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to ‘sack a client’, no matter how appalling they are. So, if you have this type of Difficult Individual in your caseload, it is imperative that you recognise it as early as possible and seek the necessary support to keep yourself mentally well.
These individuals manipulate reality so proficiently, are so superficially charming and machinate so successfully, that without an expert, psychological buffer in place, it is far from uncommon for professionals to quickly suspect that they are quite possibly going mad.
For these cases, it is essential that you always have a specialist psychologist’s number at hand.
For Lawyer – Specialist Psychological Support
- Set up onboarding protocols to ensure clients are aware of the limits of a legal role
- Inform your client at the outset, that you may require them to work with partner professionals if their needs fall out with your competencies
- Develop a pool of therapists and coaches to refer clients to
- Be self-reflective about your own psychological and physical responses to clients
- Seek individual therapy if you become aware that certain client presentations are personally challenging
- Access specialists in the psychology of Difficult Individuals to develop:
- early identification, onboarding assessments
- safety work protocols to mitigate this cohort’s negative impact on well-being
- knowledge enhancement of these challenging client types
Written by Dr Anne Duguid, Founder of My Freedom To Thrive.