Being able to work with different types of clients is a vital skill for all lawyers. While developing a complete skillset for client management takes many years, all lawyers can take one step to better understand their clients. The step is figuring out where the client fits into one of the four broad client types. Every client is different and unique, but by recognizing patterns in client types, lawyers can save themselves many headaches. Remember when you were in law school and taught to issue-spot? Client-type spotting is the same idea. A lawyer who can recognize his or her client as fitting into a certain type will be better prepared to deal with the client and to serve the client’s needs.
The first type of client all lawyers need to be familiar with is the first-time client. This is the client who has either never used a lawyer, or has never used the kind of lawyer that they are now using. For example, they have used a divorce lawyer, but now need you for a real estate law issue. The most important thing to remember with these clients is that everything is new to them. What this means for the lawyer is that everything must be explained in great detail. A large amount of hand-holding may also be needed. I have had clients who literally needed their hand held in court.
Patience while dealing with this type of clients will go a long way. Remember that every step in their case is new and frightening to them. Try to see the process through their eyes. While you have done 1,000 depositions, they have never done one. I have had several criminal law clients who would make the sign of the cross before walking into court. Never forget how scary the entire process can be to someone going through it for the first time. Often, my clients in criminal matters ask me if the judge will book them directly from court to jail.
To me this seems like a silly question, because I know the judge will give the client a self-surrender date to report to jail, but that’s because I have been in that judge’s courtroom in similar cases so often. For the client, it is their first time, and they are already scared of going to jail. Imagine how you would feel if you were in a criminal court for the first time, and thinking you were going to get hauled off to jail in front of your friends or family.
The second type of client is the opposite of the first-time client, which is the frequent-flier client. This is the client who always needs the services of a lawyer and has been through the court system many times. I remember when I was a new defense lawyer, I had clients who had sat through more trials then I had tried. The main lesson to remember with these types of clients is that you are the lawyer and you are in charge, not them. This is important, because often these clients will try bossing you around and try telling you how to do your job.
A cousin of the frequent-flier client is the know-it-all client. Never forget that you are in charge and the client needs to know this. Often, clients can sense weakness or lack of certainty in their lawyers and take advantage of this. These clients will often try telling you how their case should be handled. Be confident, and if you are not confident, fake it and sound confident. One of my first major felony cases involved a lifelong criminal who had hired me with the plan of telling me what to do and taking advantage of my lack of experience. Being confident with clients when you are new is difficult, but it must be done. Confidence with clients is a skill, and like any skill it must be practiced.
Beware this next type of client: the con artist. These clients search for lawyers who will help them carry out their unethical and sometimes illegal schemes. Often these clients need lawyers to help them draft documents or set up companies. Of course, these clients never walk into a lawyer’s office and announce that they are con artists. You have to watch for red flags. I have had many client interactions where a red flag went off in my head. Sometimes it was how the client was behaving, and not just what they were saying. Sometimes it will be very easy to tell that what the client wants is unethical; other times it may take you some time to realize it.
If you are lucky or skilled, you’ll spot the red flags before you actually take on the client. If the lawyer has already taken on the client, once they realize what the client is up to, the lawyer should withdraw as soon as possible and allowed by ethics rules. Most state bar associations have lawyer ethics hotlines that can be very useful in these situations. Developing as sixth sense when something is off about a client is a learned skill, just like being confident when speaking with your client is a learned skill. Remember that all lawyer skills must be practiced and honed over time.
The four types of clients I outlined here are four that I chose, as they seem be the most common to me. Many other types of clients are out there, including clients with mental health issues or emotional issues. The point is that the earlier a lawyer can spot such client types, the better prepared they will be to serve that client most effectively (or in some cases, withdraw from representation when necessary).