Quick Tips

Working with Difficult Clients - Tips for Paralegals
guest author: Stephanie B. Elliott

Clients are the name of our game. The relationships we form are extremely important, and go a long way toward client satisfaction with our legal teams. The needs of clients rarely change, and the one thing I've learned in twenty-one years as a paralegal is that we should practice The Golden Rule. It was important in grade school, and a life lesson that will carry you far: Treat others as you would yourself wish to be treated. It's a simple motto that makes us better people and professionals, but often a little harder to put into practice. There are so many things that can go wrong in attorney-client relationships. The most common complaint to the North Carolina State Bar is lack of communication between attorneys and their clients.

Stop, and Listen: What is your client really saying? Are they really upset about the email you sent, or could it be that they don't understand it? We take our knowledge for granted. Most people, even the most sophisticated of clients, have very little working legal knowledge, and what they know usually comes from television and movies. They expect because it's what they see, that we'll sign them up as clients in the morning, have a hearing at 2:00 p.m. and celebrate our victory before 5:00 p.m. Wouldn't that be the life! In reality, it's our job to help them understand the process of litigation and how it will affect them. They are our clients because something has happened to them and they aren't able to solve it on their own. When you take your paralegal hat off just for a moment and look at the world through their eyes, you gain a better understanding of how you can help. Be present, even when they are unhappy and it's uncomfortable. Practice kindness and be willing to listen.

Be the Bridge: Attorneys are busy people, and our clients can have higher than necessary expectations about the amount of communication they should receive. The attorney-client relationship can benefit greatly if clients know they can call you to find out what is going on, or even just to talk through their issues. This of course is a fine line, because we aren't allowed to give legal advice. You can however, be the bridge between your attorney and your client. Part of your role is to play messenger and keep everyone up to date. This also means there are times your attorney needs you to buffer them from continued phone calls, emails, and drop in visits. There are deadlines for other clients that need to be immediately addressed, and there will be times that you have to shelter your attorneys in order to protect their time. Do this as a matter of routine and your work life will be the better for it. It takes some time for you to "learn" your client, but that should be your number one goal in this relationship: anticipation of client needs helps your team be better legal advocates.

Take a Deep Breath: Even after practicing kindness and patience, there will be clients that are just not easy to work with. Take a deep breath, and remember this too is part of the process. If you can always remember that they are your client because they are under some type of stress either professionally or personally, it will help. I will admit that there have been times in my career as a paralegal that I let a snippy, biting client get the best of me. If you can reframe from the urge to "give it right back", your relationships will be stronger. Let things roll off your back, lay down the irritation and remember that your ability to do so will indirectly keep you gainfully employed. Even the best paying clients can be difficult, and however miserable that makes our legal team, they are keeping the lights on.


Stephanie B. Elliott is a senior litigation paralegal with McNair Law Firm, P.A. and has over ten years of experience in law office management. She is a part-time instructor and on the program advisory board for the paralegal certificate program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte as well as a part-time instructor for Gaston College's paralegal program. She is very active in the North Carolina Paralegal Association, where she has served as President, Vice President, NALA Liaison, Executive Committee Member, Articles and Associations news editor. She is currently serving a three year term on the North Carolina Bar Association's Paralegal Division Council.

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