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Difficult Clients – A Lawyer’s Advice to Career Counsellors

By Juliet Wehr Jones, Vice President, Career Key Canada

Difficult clients are a part of any professional practice where you are paid to give expert advice. While generally the stakes are higher for lawyers than career counsellors in dealing with difficult clients (the risks and costs of malpractice lawsuits are greater), counsellors can use the same techniques to successfully handle them.


But unlike lawyers, counsellors are more likely to be Social personality types (RIASEC) and shy away from conflict with others. So to avoid conflict, you need to be proactive and directly handle problems early.


Here are a few things I learned in my ten years as a labor and employment lawyer, representing employees, unions, and management.


The Non-Paying Client. Always have a fee agreement in writing. If they delay paying their bill more than a couple of months, let them go. I represented unemployed clients so I understand how difficult (and guilt producing) it is to charge money to people without a job.  On the other hand, you have to pay your bills and they will benefit from your help. There is an opportunity cost to your time; if you spend it with this person you will not spend it with a paying client or on marketing.


The Bill Questioner.  If your client questions your bill more than once, you need to let them go. One question is usually a misunderstanding (or on rare occasion, your mistake). Two questions is likely signs of a “chronic bill questioner” who will question every bill you send, waste your time and aggravate you. You can nicely say that you think he or she would be better served elsewhere.


The Client Who Doesn’t Take Your Advice.  If your client continually refuses to take your advice, you need to let them go.  They are paying you for expert advice and if they are unwilling to take it, then they need someone else.


The Potential Client that Makes Your Gut Contract. If you talk with someone interested in your services and you do not make a connection with the person or you feel turned off, no matter how much you need the client’s money, don’t take the client. This was advice from my first mentor and the only time I disobeyed this feeling, I made a regretful decision.


The Dissatisfied Client Who Wants a Refund. Hopefully you will avoid many of these by following the advice above.  But if you get one, just give them the refund. It will take more time, treasure and be more stressful if you fight it out over principle. There are some people who are unrealistic, lazy, or opportunistic (see “gut contraction” above) and the less time you spend with them the better.


The Dissatisfied Client that Complains to Your Boss.  If you work at a place where you have no choice over the clients you must handle, it is best to keep your boss in the loop early with difficult clients. Managers hate ugly surprises. And as simplistic as it sounds, if you have a boss who is unsupportive or doesn’t trust you to make good decisions, you need to get a new job. Difficult clients, when they sense sympathy and weakness from your employer, will make things worse – and potentially damage your professional reputation. You need a supportive boss who backs up your decisions.


Finally, document your work.  Right after the client leaves your office, take 15 seconds to write down in the file a few words to remember what advice you gave someone. It doesn’t have to be complete sentences or a full picture – just enough to trigger your memory.


Most lawyers do “pro bono” (free) legal work so there are exceptions to some of my advice about fees.  But it is easy, especially when you want to help people in need, to take on more unpaid work than you can afford.


We work in career development because we want to help people, but we need to be careful not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.  In the long run, the more financially secure you are, the more “pro bono” work you can accept.

Juliet Wehr Jones, J.D. is Vice President of Career Key Canada,, the #1 Internet source for helping people choose careers. Her popular blog, The Career Key Blog,, is featured on Alltop Careers.

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