How to Resolve Unhappy Client Situations


Clients trust their attorneys to guide them through complex legal situations and difficult periods of their lives. It’s inevitable that in the course of your practice, you’ll have clients who are displeased, frustrated, or angry about the turn of events. While stress and anxiety may play into how an unhappy client feels about your services, dissatisfaction should never be written off as being “the client’s problem.” 

Providing an excellent client experience is essential for your practice’s success. This effort comes down to customer service and follow-up to fix the situation for an unhappy client which can be a struggle at even the best of firms. According to the Lawyerist, over 40% of people who leave a voicemail or fill out a web form wait two or three days getting a response.

Communication catastrophes

There are lots of ways attorney-client communication can go sideways, especially when you involve technology, busy schedules, and remote business relationships. 

Emails pile up in the inbox. Voicemails go unchecked. Schedules get mixed up. 

Few professionals in any field bat a thousand when it comes to responsiveness, but chronic delays in response can be a real source of frustration for an unhappy client.

How to resolve

Deskside manner is essential when you’re managing clients. Acknowledging the problem and presenting steps to correct it are absolutely necessary – and usually, so is an apology. 

If the fault lies with you or your firm, say “I’m sorry.” You can elaborate: “I’m sorry that this was your experience” or “I’m sorry you’re disappointed with our timeliness” are acceptable ways to express this. It’s important to note that while saying “This was my responsibility” or “I appreciate you sharing this” are also appropriate, they aren’t the same as an apology. Make sure to add in the apology, too.

Share with the client any steps you’ve taken or new processes you’ve put into place to avoid the situation from occurring again, and you’ll find most clients are understanding and willing to move forward. 

Billing gone bad

Money is a sensitive subject, but add legal concerns to the mix and you have a recipe for some serious angst. If your client is balking at a higher-than-anticipated bill, it’s important to communicate clearly and honestly with them. Ideally, you’ve discussed billing practices during client intake. 

This allows you to explain your fee structure and set expectations for payment. However, even when this conversation takes place, clients may still be unhappy with their invoice amount.

How to resolve

There are several approaches that may smooth over billing issues with an unhappy client. If the legal expenses were truly underestimated, you should be prepared to negotiate. If you’re anticipating difficulties with your bill in advance, one option is to contact the client prior to sending the bill. Explain the details of the bill and see if the amount corresponds with the desired results. You may be able to contextualize the bill for them! 

However, if they’re still unhappy with the amount, it’s better to find this out prior to sending the bill so that efforts can be made to compromise on an acceptable amount. 

If the displeasure at the total is only found out after the bill is sent, you can offer to evaluate the bill once more – even if you know the amount is justified and accurate. You can then go back and explain how the bill is correct and what work was done. At times, you might have to negotiate the bill but try to avoid this where possible, as it can set the tone for the client to expect future reductions in the bill. 

Expectations not managed

When you’re positive you can deliver promised results, it’s a great feeling, especially when your client is excited to start! But the best-laid plans don’t always deliver. Perhaps you anticipated a friendly judge would preside over their case, but you’ve ended up with one who is an unknown quantity. Or maybe your assessment that mediation would be the ticket to resolution was off the mark. 

Whatever the case, misreading situations happens to the best of us, but when your client relies on your expertise, it can be frustrating for both sides to have a case not go according to expectations. 

How to resolve

Even you feel like you’ve set reasonable expectations, don’t lead with a defensive stance. Let clients air their grievances and try to truly hear them. If you’re having the conversation in person, make eye contact, nod, and paraphrase what they’ve said so they know you’ve understood their concerns. Don’t cross your arms. 

Once they’ve said their piece, get ready to follow up. Be honest, explain what happened and deliver as quickly as possible with anything you can do to make things right. If the ball is in someone else’s court, make sure they do what they are supposed to do. Swiftly addressing and resolving these problems has a huge impact on how clients perceive your commitment to customer service. 

Moving forward

Even lawyers who are skilled in litigation dread conversations with an unhappy client. But at the end of the day, we all make mistakes and they’re bound to happen during your career. What clients want to see if a genuine understanding of the error and a fix. By listening carefully, communicating, and working with clients to fine-tune your work together, you can turn a pending loss into a net gain.

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