Five tips: Difficult clients and how to deal with them.
Written by Bill Doogue. Partner, Doogue + George Defence Lawyers
As criminal defence lawyers, our client base includes a varied demographic.
Some people can be difficult to deal with, and this difficulty arises out of a variety of sources: they may be in complete denial about the offending (in the face of overwhelming evidence); they may be exceedingly anxious about the Court process and/or the prospect of going to jail; they may be of a different culture and not understand the Court process; or, they may suffer from psychological or psychiatric illness or be cognitively impaired.
Following are five tips I will share with you, that we employ when dealing with particularly stressed or stressful clients, allowing the process to run smoothly and help them understand accept our (obviously sound) advice.
- Earn the client’s confidence and trust.
It sounds trite, but this is important when dealing with a difficult client as it can mean the difference between the client accepting the advice that you give them and not accepting it (or even going so far as to accuse you of siding with the prosecution!). Gaining confidence and trust takes time and I recommend that you have a number of conferences with the client, well in advance of the Court date, in order to achieve this. Continuity of representation is also a factor here; try, as best as you can, to maintain your representation of the client so that a level of trust is developed and maintained. If you do need to brief a barrister or have another advocate appear for the client, notify the client in advance and introduce the client to the new representative.
- Use simple terms and plain English.
Again, a simple tip, but an effective one. Don’t use legal terms; use metaphors that are applicable to everyday life. For example, using a football analogy (in this sport-oriented Australian society of ours) might work: instead of saying “we are adjourning for lunch” say “it’s half time – we are all going for a break”; instead of saying “the Magistrate/Judge presiding over your case will consider the evidence and arrive at a verdict based on that evidence” say “the Magistrate/Judge is the umpire who makes a decision about whether you are guilty or not guilty”.
- Give the client information about their case.
This includes a run-down on Court process and procedure and the roles of the various people they will encounter in Court (e.g., Magistrate/Judge; prosecutor; witnesses; ancillary staff that appear in Court such as Judge’s Associates and tipstaff, Magistrates’ Court clerks). It also includes an assessment of the strength of the case against them (in plain English, of course – see point 2., above).
- Advise the client about the strength of their case and the likely outcomes.
Sometimes, when taking instructions, clients can go off on tangents, providing instructions about things that are not relevant to their case or engaging in discussions about the minutiae of evidence against them that really doesn’t alter their position. When conferencing with these clients you should, of course, actively listen, but boundaries should be set in relation to what you speak about so that your conference doesn’t get derailed. Be honest about potential outcomes – tell them the benefits of pleading guilty as opposed to pleading not guilty and what is involved, as far as the process is concerned, in each case.
- Make sure that the client understands your advice.
An easy way to do this is to have them repeat back to you, in their own words, what you have told them
Hopefully, by employing these strategies, it will make dealing with difficult clients easier and reduce the stress on both you and them.