How Legal Aid Alberta lawyers navigate challenging client relationships

Tips and tricks for managing situations that involve not-so-easy-to-work-with individuals.

Communications and Public Relations
July 13, 2022

(updated January 25, 2024)

10 practice tips from legal aid lawyers

Good communication, time management, and appropriate expectation-setting are fundamental to representing your clients effectively. With many clients, this comes easily — but occasionally, lawyers encounter situations where navigating that client relationship is particularly challenging.  

For more difficult client situations, Legal Aid Alberta lawyers have a toolbox of strategies at hand to help the process move more smoothly and to ensure that clients achieve the best possible outcomes — while reducing the stress levels of everyone involved. 

1. Identify challenges early.

You may notice that a new client has gone through several lawyers already and has not been satisfied with any of them, or in your early interactions it may become apparent that they make unrealistic demands of you and your staff (such as insisting that their work take priority over every other client). Some clients may have unrealistic expectations of the courts or tend not to reasonably consider (or follow) legal advice or recommendations.

2. Take some time to consider where these issues may be coming from.

Is the client unfamiliar with the law and the legal process, and what can realistically be done? Do they have a lack of community or family support? Perhaps there are mental health or addiction issues at play, low literacy, or a high-conflict personality. Understanding where client relationship challenges originate can guide you towards strategies for managing conflict. 

3. Have a separate retainer letter and review the certificate together.

We recommend a separate retainer letter as a best practice. Review the certificate together and ensure you and the client have the same understanding of the scope of your work, including what legal issues and services are covered under the Legal Aid Alberta certificate.

4. Make sure your client understands which specific legal issues are covered by the certificate, as well as any conditions, such as the assignment of settlement proceeds. 

5. Set some ground rules.

Be clear with your client: is a matter a legal issue that should be addressed with the assistance of counsel, or is it a non-legal matter that should be dealt with through other means? For legal issues, is it covered by the certificate? If a matter is not covered by the certificate, you may decline to deal with the issue, or you can submit an Authorization Request through the Lawyer Portal to see if it can be added to the certificate.

For non-legal matters, your client might benefit from a list of other resources they can draw on for help. It’s important to be firm with your client when it comes to managing expectations from the outset. Make sure you review the contents of the certificate and inform your client of your professional obligations as a lawyer set out by the Law Society of Alberta. 

6. Establish rules of communication.

Decide on the best method for your client to communicate with you: phone, e-mail, text message or in person. Be sure to establish expectations regarding frequency of communication and response time. Some clients may find it helpful to establish structures, like a weekly e-mail check-in from the client that includes all current issues, concerns and comments, rather than multiple e-mails throughout the week.

Be sure to consider your client’s particular needs — for example, written communication may be more difficult for clients with language barriers or those with limited or no access to a computer.  

7. Develop realistic expectations.

Discuss what can and cannot be accomplished under the certificate and through the legal system with your representation, and have your client identify their priorities. A focal point of this conversation may be to discuss likely timelines for each step involved in resolving the client’s case, especially if there are court applications involved. This may also be a good opportunity to discuss alternative dispute resolution options. 

8. Educate your client on their responsibilities.

Explain your client’s responsibility to provide information and documents when requested, keep their contact information updated, provide reasonable instructions and stay on topic. Don’t be afraid to give your client homework! Considering your client’s abilities and circumstances, ask them to complete as much of the information-gathering as possible –compiling financial disclosures, writing a timeline of a relationship, or obtaining school or medical records. 

9. Keep your client informed of the financial cost being incurred.

An interim invoice is required every twelve months but can be issued more often. Consider sending a copy to your client so that both you and they are aware of how much work has been done and how much coverage remains under the certificate. Tell your client what happens if the hours under the certificate are used up before the case is finished: there is no guarantee that additional hours will be approved.  

10. Create a list of resources that the client can access.

Your list might include books (even better if the client can access them at the public library) or websites. You can also tell your client about assistance programs such as: 

      • PAS (Parenting After Separation) and PASHC (Parenting After Separation High-Conflict) e-courses offered by Alberta Justice, 
      • the Triple-P (Positive Parenting Program), which is free in Alberta, 
      • the CPLEA (Centre for Public Legal Education in Alberta), and 
      • other community resources that may be specifically relevant to your client’s situation and needs. 

And, in closing: don’t hesitate to use the resources that are available to you.

Reach out to colleagues or mentors or explore the resources available on the Law Society of Alberta’s Lawyer-Client Relationship Resources page. Developing your skill set in navigating challenging client relationships takes time and practice — but you and your clients alike will reap the rewards. 

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