Dealing with the Problem Client

We’ve all been there. Inevitably, every professional encounters a client whose demeanor or attitude make the representation difficult. As a result, the professional may be tempted to ignore the situation and limit contact with these clients.  But, that would be a mistake.  Pursuant to a recent ethics ruling in Matter of Azar, DRB 13-041, the New Jersey Disciplinary Review Board determined that providing the cold shoulder to problem clients warranted disciplinary action.

In Azar, the Board evaluated three ethics grievances against an attorney.  In each matter, the attorney allegedly abandoned the client’s interests and “engaged in a pattern of failure to communicate with his clients” after the client became difficult to work with.  In one instance, the attorney became agitated with his client’s repeated “nasty” phone calls.  In another instance, the attorney failed to communicate with his client because of a language barrier.  In the final case, the attorney failed to return phone calls.

Following a hearing, the Disciplinary Review Board found that the attorney had neglected his clients’ interests and failed to be a zealous advocate on their behalf.  The Board further determined that the attorney’s actions were in violation of New Jersey Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1(b) – a pattern of neglect; 1.3 – lack of diligence; 1.4(b) – failure to communicate with a client; and 1.16(d) – failure to protect a client’s interest on termination of representation.

The Board’s decision serves as a reminder to attorneys and other professionals that ethical rules and obligations apply even in the face of the most difficult clients. Professionals should develop a plan to avert ethical issues and possible malpractice claims.  This includes clearly establishing your role with the client so that the client understands the scope of the representation and its limitations, and setting forth clear expectations of what the client hopes to achieve at the outset.  Other practice-pointers include carefully evaluating would-be clients before agreeing to engage; be clear about fees; and, consider disengagement when appropriate. In addition, professionals should be careful to document all communications with the client in order to preserve a detailed record in the event of a future dispute.