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5 Easy Steps to Derail Your Attorney/Client Relationship

Categories: Litigation, Article

5 ways to ruin the attorney client relationship

When clients come to me for legal advice, I assume they will consider my advice, if not follow it.  However, for sake of argument, let's say you are different and you want to know the best ways to negatively impact the attorney/client relationship.  In my opinion, there are five ways to get your relationship off to a bad start, or if it was going well, to insure that it gets worse.   For both clients and lawyers who want a smooth and productive relationship, skip all five of these steps!  If you recognize yourself - or your attorney - in any of these steps, then it may be time to alter your relationship.

Step 1- Lie to me

Not being truthful will turn a positive relationship negative quickly. There are two types of lies, and both will derail the attorney/client relationship.  

The first lie I call the "outright lie" which is simply not speaking the truth.  Examples are "we paid that amount" or "I complained about the goods/services from the outset and they refused to fix anything" or the classic, "it wasn't me."  When I am told the opposite of what has occurred, or something happened for which there is no proof, I may be wasting time and resources on an unsuccessful theory or pointless strategy.  This is a good way to insure that both my client and I are frustrated.

The second lie is the lie of omission.  This is where I am told MOST of the story, but not the dreaded crucial part.  These are sometimes harder to spot, but equally as destructive as the outright lie.  When I am not aware of the full story, I may have false impressions of the strength of the case.  This causes both attorney and client to be frustrated with the later results, when the case gets worse because the undisclosed facts come out and change the whole landscape of the case.  This is another good way to insure frustration.

Step 2- Don't communicate 

This is a good relationship buster for both the client and attorney.  Lack of communication will make a case more difficult, more time consuming and more expensive.  When either the attorney or client is hard to reach, it sends a message that the issue is not important.  In our modern age, many people can't go 30 seconds without emailing, calling, texting or posting online.  This makes it all the more frustrating when days go by with unanswered messages.  

A sure fire way to strain the attorney client relationship is to be difficult to reach.  If you are the client, it will slow your lawyer down, often resulting in unnecessary work, stalling the case from an efficient resolution.  If you are a lawyer, it will reduce trust in you, cause questions in competence, almost guarantee a fight over your billing, and may even get you that holy grail of relationship enders, a Bar complaint.  The American Bar Association consistently warns lawyers that lack of responsiveness and communication is the number one complaint consumers have about lawyers.  

Step 3- Put it off

Litigation is a distraction.  Clients are not in the litigation business, they are in their business.  That makes it hard for them to focus on the litigation.  Litigators, on the other hand, are in the litigation business at all times.  Understanding that clients have to run their own business is critical to a good relationship.   Litigation rarely benefits from a delay.  In most cases, the facts are the facts.  The sooner each side knows the facts and can evaluate them, the sooner they are able to consider the options and the strength of the case/defense.  

When an attorney has a non-responsive client, the attorney's work is stalled.  That lawyer has a hard time continuing to follow up and trying to get in touch with the client.  When a client has a lawyer who is not pushing a case, they are often confused and worried.  They think the case has less merit; the lawyer is afraid or no longer interested.  Whatever the result, it will be evident that delay, procrastination and avoidance can impair the attorney/client relationship.

Step 4- Ignore What I Tell You 

Clients pay lots of money for an attorney's advice. Attorneys provide the best possible advice for the situation at hand based on the facts and what is known. Often, attorneys have to say things clients do not want to hear. That advice is just as important as the parts clients do want to hear.

Clients must be prepared to hear bad news and lawyers must be prepared to deliver it.  That's what attorneys are being hired to do, tell it the way it is. 

Personally, I promise to deliver the good the bad and the ugly. This does not mean my clients should do whatever I say, whenever I say it.  If your lawyer's advice is unexpected, or seems different, let the lawyer know.  Ask how we got here.  Ask what else can be done and what other options are out there.  Understand not just what the lawyer is saying, but also ask why.  

Step 5- Be Unreasonable

The final way to cause a serious rift in the attorney/client relationship is by being unreasonable.  That can take several forms.  For a client, a few of the more common ways are: have unrealistic expectations of the value of the case; complain that the other side, or the judge, is not moving fast enough; don't seriously consider making or accepting a settlement offer that is not everything wanted; or expect that the lawyer will work for free because the feelings about the case have changed.  Lawyers can be unreasonable by:  expecting an unlimited litigation budget; thinking the client's business stops to accommodate the litigation schedule; being frustrated that the clients don't understand things at the same depth and speed that the lawyer does; and failing to treat the client's money like it was your own.

There are, of course, many more ways to derail the attorney/client relationship.  At this point, if you want to harm your relationship, being unreasonable is a good way to do it.

So that's five ways.  There are many, many more.  If you think I missed some, comment below or message me at tsm@jaburgwilk.com.  While this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, it is a good start for thinking about how to end an attorney/client relationship.  If that is not your goal, I hope this list helps avoid that.


About the Author: Tom Moring, a partner in the Phoenix law firm of Jaburg Wilk. His practice emphasizes complex real estate and commercial disputes, creditor's rights, tort litigation and collections matters. Mr. Moring has extensive experience in managing and performing all aspects of litigation from initial investigation through discovery to trial. Got a legal question for tom? Contact him here.


This article is not intended to provide legal advice and only relates to Arizona law.  It does not consider the scope of laws in states other than Arizona.  Always consult an attorney for legal advice for your particular situation.