Every lawyer has one of them: The client who can’t keep quiet. Who won’t follow commonsense guidance. Who opens their mouth even when it’s clearly in their best interests not to. Who seemingly has no filter-and who, with every word, backs himself (or herself) further into a corner.
For some of the nation’s most established Washington lawyers, that client also happens to be the political leader of the free world.
President Trump’s personal legal team has undergone near-total turnover in recent months. Senior attorney John Dowd resigned in March, and Ty Cobb is set to retire at the end of the month.
Dowd, who took the lead on Mueller’s Russia probe, had strongly advised Trump against sitting down with investigators. He advocated a more cautious approach — written interrogatories and, perhaps, pre-recorded video testimony rather than a free-for-all interview that would give Trump yet another opportunity to put his foot in his mouth (this time with more drastic consequences than just public ire). Apparently spurning this advice, Trump insisted in the press that he wanted to sit down with investigators for an interview to clear his name. Dowd resigned shortly thereafter. As one commentator put it, he was “unwilling to be the lawyer dumb enough to let that happen.”
Since then, many lawyers have reportedly turned down stepping into Dowd’s shoes (although former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani eventually stepped up to the challenge). And you can’t blame them. Trump has a long history of flouting legal advice. As Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” so vividly depicts, Trump resists direction from even his closest advisors and confidants. He surrounds himself with “yes-men” who tell him only what he wants to hear. He’s every lawyer’s nightmare: The unruly client who can’t be contained.
Weeding out these clients before they become a problem
While few attorneys are thrust into the spotlight with such a high-profile client — one whose every (and frequent) blunder makes international headlines — many of us deal with this type of client from time to time. These problem-clients raise difficult questions: How long do you stick with them? How far do you go to accommodate their demands? And when do you finally throw in the towel?
Managing such a client requires a thoughtful approach from the outset. Usually, telltale warning signs surface during the initial intake or first consultation: The prospective client has unreasonable expectations. They hold extreme positions. They won’t budge even when seasoned, professional judgment and rational arguments counsel a different course. They have another lawyer in their back pocket as a means of second-guessing your work. They have an agenda, and they want you to be the tool they use to accomplish it.
Weeding out these clients at the intake stage will spare you countless headaches down the road. So, too, will crafting a strong retainer agreement–one that gives you an out, should you need it. (One attorney recommends including a “client cooperation” clause that spells out their responsibilities and gives you grounds to withdraw if they don’t follow through.)
Another necessity in dealing with difficult clients? Document everything. This strategy (also known as “C.Y.A.”) will ensure that you don’t get dragged down in the mud along with your slip-sliding client.
Knowing when to jump ship
At some point, even with the most thorough vetting process in place, you may still find yourself in the same quandary that Trump’s growing pool of former advisors have all faced: When, and how, do you get out?
Every attorney must have lines they won’t cross — ethically, professionally and morally. When a client persists in ignoring your counsel and choosing the worst possible course of action at every turn, it might be time to move on. And when representing a client compromises your ability to provide honest guidance based on independent judgment — or otherwise compromises your own professional integrity — it’s definitely time to consider withdrawing, and in as swift and ethical a manner as you can muster.