Tips for Dealing with Difficult People

We all know the feeling—a clenched jaw, tense stomach, on the back of your heels but ready to pounce if given an opening. You have engaged and are now interacting with a Sensibility-Challenged Individual. This person is the opposite of the “reasonable man” or “fair-minded and informed observer” you learned about in law school. Clients, opposing counsel, judges or staff, a law practice setting is a workshop for life’s most difficult problems, and attorneys encounter more difficult people than most.

Proceed with utmost caution, as this can be a difficult creature to maneuver.

Follow the following steps to diffuse the encounter and leverage the situation to your benefit.

  1. Listen. More than anything, this soul wants to be heard and vindicated. Matching their vitriol will only worsen the encounter. Try to understand the source of their frustration while avoiding the temptation to interrupt and correct. Make proper eye contact and focus on your body language. Nod empathetically. Ask yourself, “Is this a rational person who is capable of being reasonable?”
  2. Educate without being condescending. Explain your world. Non-lawyers often do not understand how quickly legal fees may rise relative to other professionals with no obvious result. Whether your practice is litigation or transactional, being a consumer of legal services is confusing and stressful. A difficult opposing counsel may need to understand your predicament.
  3. Know when to confront and how to deal with difficult realities. Evaluate and choose the appropriate medium of communication for the situation. Do not summarize the outcome of an important motion via e-mail or voicemail. If a deal has died, be sensitive to the resources your client or opposing counsel has contributed.

Never avoid having the conversation you know is necessary. Set the tone by commanding attention. “We need to have a candid conversation and assess this case.” You are not a politician, you are a lawyer. Sugar-coating a difficult situation with no easy answer only creates false expectations and delays the inevitable disappointing reality all parties will ultimately be forced to reckon with.

If a client is in the wrong, don’t be afraid to tell them. Evaluate objectives through the lens of testimony and parties’ positions rather than through how parties wish reality to be.

  1. Unresponsiveness and inattention in a law practice can cause huge delays and expense. If your attempts to move a matter forward are thwarted by yelling matches or simply silence, be tactical yet constructive in your approach. Effective lawyering is often a chess match, and you must think two or three steps ahead. Treat every communication as if it will one day be read aloud in open court or in a conference room. Catalogue your attempts at resolution, and be prepared to objectively explain a stalemate while highlighting your white-gloved attempts to gain headway.
  2. Did you make a mistake? If so, own it, control damage and put measures in place to minimize the same error from happening again. Thomas Jefferson said, “If you have to eat crow, eat it while it is young and tender.” Everyone makes mistakes but delaying or simply ignoring them causes problems to fester and you are setting yourself up for someone to be justifiably upset with you. Very few mistakes cannot be fixed, or greatly mitigated by getting out in front of the problem early.
  3. Avoid this happening again. Try to part ways with irrational people who unnecessarily complicate your life. We cannot always do this in our family lives, but in your professional world you must ask yourself whether dealing with a perpetually difficult person is worth it. Perhaps a staff change or a new position is necessary, or a long-term client should find a better fit or another attorney should step in.

Difficult people will always come and go, but vetting potential clients is a huge way to reduce the stress of working with a difficult person on a regular basis. Beware of red flag clients—having numerous previous attorneys is an obvious one; the perpetual victim who wants to take on the world; the bully; the client who can’t pay their bills. If you are going to have to deal with difficult people, you should be duly compensated.

Whether you’ve sparred with a difficult person in the past and know their repertoire, or you’re caught off guard with a first-time flurry of abuse, always take the high road. How easy it would be to react with sarcastic, belittling wittiness or spit venomous obscenities at your foe, yet it will only make the problem worse. Your goal is to minimize the occurrence of these nasty interactions, certainly not to escalate them.

In the heat of the moment, think, breathe, put yourself in their shoes. Why are they being difficult and what can you do about it? Mental illness, natural disposition, unfortunate circumstances, a power tripper. Take comfort in the fact that you are not like them. You do not solve problems by making others’ lives difficult.

Though you didn’t learn it in law school, you are a happy lawyer because of your Jedi-like ability to deal with difficult people. Imagine Atticus Finch reacting to Bob Ewell’s spitting in his face in the classic lawyer novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Sure, Atticus could have justifiably clobbered that little hillbilly, but his heroism lied in his character as measured by his actions, or inactions. De-escalation is the goal. By taking the high road, you won’t develop enemies whom you may be forced to work with in the future.

Effectively dealing with difficult people is a key component to maintaining mental well-being in the practice of law. As much grit as it may take, really try to understand their perspective before responding. Avoid the urge to pound on your conference room table, fire off hot-headed e-mails, or call them up and tell it like it is. Acknowledge their frustration, as misdirected or irrational as it may be, and thoughtfully devise a strategy for moving forward in your endeavor together collaboratively or working toward an exit.

About the Author

Matt Potempa is a founding partner at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC, in Nashville, TN, with a practice devoted exclusively to resolving family and estate disputes. Contact him at 615.800.7096 or

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