Dealing with the Recalcitrant Client
We are dedicated to representing the salt of the earth — but sometimes it feels that a few of our clients are rubbing salt into the wounds. While the vast, overwhelming majority of our clients conduct themselves in a dignified manner, there are always a few that are extremely aggravating and difficult to please. Just as we have worked hard to polish our courtroom skills, so must we strive diligently to insure that the rude or obtuse client does not upset a career built upon the tenets of professionalism.
In practicing law for more than 23 years, I believe it is fair to say that 99% of our clientele has been very pleased with our representation — win, lose or draw. This presentation is devoted to sharing my experience regarding the 1% that I could never make happy. I begin with the most common and innocuous problem — the overly frequent caller — and travel through the realm of rudeness, Bar Association Complaints, and fee-slashing efforts.
OVERLY FREQUENT CALLERS
Most clients want to know “what’s going on with my case”, and rightfully so. Especially with the past delays in getting a hearing date, now on the wane nationwide, many clients become exasperated at hearing nothing for long periods of time. While a routine request for status, perhaps once a month is normal, the client that calls 2, 3 or 4 times a week presents a problem.
First of all, a representative must prioritize his or her time. Dealing with routine requests for status is a waste of your time and expertise. An experienced staff member in your office should deal with the existing client calls. Only when a legal issue is posed outside the ken of the staff member, should the representative be called upon to speak to the client. I make an exception if an unusually long period of time has elapsed without any action by the SSA — then I simply try to reassure the client that we are on top of the matter. I always speak to the client when the Request for Reconsideration is denied, and when we get a hearing date. Personal contact initiated by the representative alleviates a great deal of anxiety.
Some clients regard us as their lifeline and call several times a week. I have instructed my staff to politely discourage this practice. We inform the client that such frequent calling is not necessary and that we will inform them when something important occurs. If the overly-frequent calling persists, my staff is instructed to explain to the client that they have hired us for our expertise, and if they wish to run the case, they must do so without us. This does the trick virtually every time. On 2 or 3 occasions, I have withdrawn as counsel when the barrage of calls has been unceasing and unnecessary.
THE RUDE CALLER
In days of yore, when we were waiting 1 1/2 to 2 years for a hearing from the date that the Request for Hearing was filed, we received many angry calls from clients. I can understand the agony that an indigent claimant experiences when he or she feels like nothing is happening. I can understand that our office might be the target for a client that needs to vent about the delay — but I will not and never have tolerated the abuse of my staff by misguided clients.
The typical rude caller feels we have forgotten about them or have done nothing for them. My staff is instructed to try to calm the client down, and to summarize for the client exactly what is transpiring in the case. We explain to the client that it is up to the judge to set a hearing date — not us. We give persistent complainers the name, and phone number of the OHA employee responsible for scheduling that person’s case, and suggest that future calls be directed to that person.
If the rudeness occurs a second time, we note the file, and a letter is sent to the client over my signature advising them that any further impoliteness of a similar nature will lead to my withdrawal. I try not to get in a verbal argument with the client about their demeanor, as this is generally extremely unproductive for all involved. Persistent rudeness is also an omen that a Title XVI fee will not be paid, and if the ugliness continues, we withdraw. Nobody — nobody, has the right to abuse you or your staff merely because they have a contractual relationship with you.
THE FEE SLASHERS
I am always amazed that the greatest source of discontent (slight as it may be) is among those clients whose cases we have won. Every year, there is some guy that has convinced himself that he won the case with the ALJ, not us. Or that he secured a few medical records, and why should we get a fee and, most laughingly, that Congressman so and so won the case because, he ostensibly talked to the judge. Oh, please!!
Let me say at the outset that I take a very dim view of fee protests. While couched in language that makes it appear that the client did all the work, the fee protests I have had to fight off are all motivated by one and only one factor — GREED. While I am not averse to compromising on a fee when the case is granted on the record at any level, if one of the attorneys in my office actually went to a hearing, I am far less likely to compromise.
I have included three examples of fee-slashing efforts and our response. As you can see, I believe in a strong response. If you don’t rebut a lie about your firm, you are conceding its truthfulness. When called upon to address a fee-slashing request, I review the entire file — page by page. I try to point out all the special things we did for the client — all the way from obtaining letters from doctors which discuss why a listing was met, down through writing letters to stave off the client’s creditors. If the person has mental ailments, I believe it is helpful to point that out as well. In one case, included herein, a client actually started paying a Title XVI fee after our response was upheld by the Administration.
THE BAR ASSOCIATION COMPLAINERS
Nothing makes my stomach sink worse than seeing a certified letter from the Bar. Nothing makes my blood boil more than having to read hog wash from a client who complains to the Bar about us — despite the fact that we have won the case. Invariably and without exception, the complaints are from winning clients who are really looking to cut or eliminate our fee. The one exception came when a client called me and said she did not want to pursue her case and told me to dismiss it. When I did, she complained to the Bar that she only meant to dismiss me! The ALJ who dismissed the case was so upset that I was upset, that he immediately entered an Order reinstating the case to his docket. The Bar promptly dismissed the complaint. Of course, it did not hurt that the client accused me of only representing blacks, and since she is white, that is why I ostensibly dismissed her claim.
All other Bar Association complaints revolve around the work we did to win the case. We keep contemporaneously entered computer records of all phone calls, letters and other work we do for each client, as well as keeping a hard copy of all correspondence and documentation pertaining to the case. When called upon, we explain to the Bar each and every step we took in the case. One client actually withdraw his charges after reading our comprehensive response.
Fortunately, we have an unblemished record of having all complaints dismissed. You must write a detailed rebuttal, immediately, once you have received the dreaded certified Bar letter. Nothing is more important than your license. Do not put the Bar complaint aside. Get angry and respond at once. We always append all pertinent documents and set up our response like an exhibit file. Every case has a crucial document. Find it and utilize it.
We have all built our law firms case by case. Nobody likes to be terminated by a client, or to have to withdraw due to a client’s obstreporousness. It takes a patient representative and talented staff to deflect a client’s misplaced anger at the system’s inherent delays back where the complaints belong. Moreover, clients must be kept reasonably apprised of your efforts on their behalf, so that they don’t falsely claim that the Congressman won the case for them. In a system where cases move as slowly as this one, a fine balance of your time is required between legal work and client contacts. It is a balance that must be preserved to create a good feeling for both the clients and the representatives — win, lose or draw.
Fortunately, knock on wood, I have had no experience with malpractice suits, and cannot share any thoughts on this subject area. Obviously, you should carry adequate amounts of liability insurance, and have a system in place to guard against missing deadlines for appeals. Nobody is perfect.