Client Complaints and Difficult Clients

Problems of Poverty

Working successfully with low-income clients may require an understanding of the poverty issues that may interfere with a client’s ability to resolve their legal problems.  Low-income clients may have transportation problems and/or child care problems.  Their jobs, if they have them, seldom provide for paid time off.

In addition, they may have the following experiences or situations:

  • They may have experienced domestic abuse or other physical and emotional assaults.
  • They may have criminal records which keep them from earning enough money to escape poverty.
  • They may be crime victims.
  • They may speak another language.
  • They may be strangers in a culture they don’t understand.
  • They may have physical or mental disabilities or other health issues, including addictions.
  • They may be suspicious of agencies and people who are trying to help them, and question your motives.
  • They may be depressed and believe that their problems can’t be solved.
  •  Their children may be sick or may have disabilities.
  • Their spouses may have abandoned them.
  • They may be homeless.
  • If they have homes, their phones may be disconnected.
  • They may not have access to a computer or the internet.

For a one-person household, the maximum monthly income to qualify for CLS in 2014 is $1,216.  This amounts to $40.53 per day.  With one child, the maximum monthly income rises to $1,639 or $54.63 per day for two people.  This is gross income, before taxes are deducted.  This income has to cover rent, food, gas or other transportation costs such as the bus or light rail, keep the heat and the lights turned on, buy clothing for everyone in the household, pay for medicine, buy soap and detergent and more.

If you earn this amount of income, and your car breaks down, you have no transportation.  You may not be able to get your child to school and yourself to work.  You may lose your job.  You then can’t pay your rent and may lose your home.  One problem can very quickly become many.

If you are interested in learning more about poverty and how it affects an individual’s ability to function and thrive, you can actually play a few online games to learn more:

As you can imagine, the constant stress of living in poverty can make it hard to focus.  Because of the high level of stress experienced by your client, among other reasons, he/she may:

  • Not complete documents in a timely way.
  • Not show up on time for appointments with you.
  • Not show up for court hearings.
  • Not have records that are needed for the case.  Those records may have been lost in the course of many moves from one rental to another, or from a shelter to the street.
  • Not have identification (which could be lost in a robbery or misplaced, and which they don’t have the money to replace.) If you don’t have ID, please contact the Colorado ID Project staff.
  • Be hungry and unable to focus because they haven’t eaten.

Tips for Working with a Low-Income Person

  •  Patience is helpful.
  • Write things down that you want your client to do.
  • Explain why you need your client to do the things you wrote down.
  • Find out what your client’s understanding of the case is, and fill in the gaps.  Don’t assume that your client has your perspective on the case.
  • Respect your clients – they face challenges every day that require courage, persistence, and resilience.

Pro bono attorneys who partner with their low-income clients to resolve legal problems will find their pro bono work frustrating at times but extremely rewarding overall.  Solving one problem can help clients to eliminate or reduce other problems.  Your work on behalf of low-income clients can model the respectful, professional, compassionate service that every client deserves.

Client Complaints

Clients occasionally contact CLS to complain about their pro bono attorneys.  CLS has a standard procedure which is used for all client complaints.

CLS staff will first listen to the client explain his/her complaint.  CLS will inform the client that the next step will be a discussion of the complaint with the client’s volunteer attorney.  The attorney will be informed of the existence of the complaint and will be able to present his/her perspective on the client’s concerns.

Sometimes clients don’t want their attorneys informed of their complaints.  In that event, CLS staff will encourage clients to speak directly with their attorneys to resolve the problem.  However, CLS cannot take any action on a client complaint without first speaking with the client’s volunteer attorney to obtain the attorney’s perspective.

Client complaints and dissatisfaction with the work being done by their volunteer attorneys, of course, interfere with a healthy attorney-client relationship.  CLS does not intend to interfere with the attorney-client relationship.  The goal with any client complaint is to resolve the complaint to the satisfaction of both the attorney and the client and preserve the attorney-client relationship.  If at all possible, clients are encouraged to discuss the complaint with the volunteer attorney prior to proceeding with a complaint.

CLS does not guarantee a client a second referral when a complaint is received.  CLS staff will obtain both the client’s and the attorney’s perspectives, and any other relevant information, and then review the complaint with senior management.  Complaints which involve possible malpractice or clear issues of improper actions by attorneys will warrant second referrals for the clients.  Other complaints often involve lack of clear communication between attorney and client.  CLS hopes to resolve those complaints by encouraging attorneys and clients to engage in a full discussion of the issues.  CLS staff are available to assist with client communications whenever an attorney requests this.

Attorneys who are presented with client complaints have the ultimate decision as to whether they can continue to represent their clients.  CLS will defer to the attorney’s evaluation of the attorney-client relationship and the attorney’s decision about whether or not to continue their representation of their clients.

Dealing with Difficult Clients

Attorneys generally have well-developed procedures for handling difficult clients, since they encounter this problem among their paying clients.  CLS respects an attorney’s ability to resolve common difficulties such as failure to communicate or keep in touch, failure to complete work requested of the client, failure to respect the attorney’s time, lack of respect for the attorney’s office staff, etc.  However, CLS is ready to assist volunteer attorneys with these issues.

CLS has a sample retainer which attorneys can use with their pro bono clients; attorneys are free to use their own retainers if they prefer.  The CLS retainer discusses the importance of cooperation with the volunteer attorney and prompt response to the attorney’s requests.  Attorneys are encouraged to review these expectations with their pro bono clients and not to assume that clients understand what is expected of them.

CLS staff will be happy to communicate with clients when requested by their volunteer attorneys.  CLS can explain that cooperation with the volunteer attorney is a requirement for the client, and explain that a client may lose a volunteer attorney if the client fails to cooperate.  Attorneys can always determine when they are no longer able to work with a client and return the case to CLS, which will then determine if a second referral is warranted.  Most often, when a client fails to cooperate without cause, no second referral is attempted.  Exceptions may be made for clients with mental disabilities or other conditions that interfere with their ability to cooperate.

If you’d like some tips on how to deal with difficult clients, please click here to watch an online presentation.