One of the trickiest situations you may ever face is when you need to tell a client they are wrong. Unfortunately, as an attorney it is your job to break the news to them somehow. If their mistake will affect the outcome of the matter you’re handling, you can not ethically proceed without attempting to set the record straight. Indeed, in some cases a client may request that you do something unethical or even illegal. Especially in those cases, but even when the stakes aren’t quite that high, you have to find a way to explain to them what the right course of action is.
First make sure they are actually wrong. Do your research to not only make certain that they are in fact wrong, but also so that you have any information you need to back you up. If the client has requested you take a course of action that you are unable to pursue, then you’ll need to cite the relevant case law, statutes, or professional code of conduct. No matter what, remain professional and be certain that they always understand that you are doing what you believe is best for them in light of your professional experience and expertise. Here are a few ways to gently explain the mistake:
Blame a Change in The Law
If the client is mistaken about a matter of law, you can tactfully let them know they are wrong by telling them the law has changed. Who cares if the case law in question was fifteen years ago? Start by saying: “While that was true, the law has recently changed. The law now states that…” By specifically citing the current law, you demonstrate that you’ve done the research and simultaneously address the mistaken belief.
Gently Suggest an Alternative
If the mistake involves a course of action, you may want to start by merely “suggesting” an alternative course of action. You can begin by saying: “That isn’t a bad idea. However, I think [insert suggested course of action here] might be a better plan and here is why… [insert reasons why your plan is better including specifics].” If you’re able to effectively communicate why your plan is better, whether they realize the mistake or not, you may be able to side step the issue altogether.
Cite Your Experience
If you’ve handled similar situations in the past for other clients, don’t be afraid to cite that experience when working with a new client. You can tell your client: “We actually handled a similar matter for another client. This is what we did and this is why it worked.” You don’t have to actually tell your client they are wrong in this scenario, but they may see the wisdom in sticking with a winning strategy with proven success.
Show Your Client The Evidence
Sometimes the best course of action is to let your client realize their error on their own. That doesn’t mean letting them recklessly pursue the wrong course of action. Instead, without explicitly telling them they are wrong, you can provide them with the evidence to help them to reach the realization on their own. You can say something along the lines of: “Well, what about this [insert your evidence here]?” Even if they don’t reach the right conclusion, you can explain to them that “Although you may be right about this. A judge/jury/etc. may reach the conclusion that…” Even if the client continues in their mistaken belief, perhaps you can convince them that it is unlikely that you can convince others of the same idea.
Ask Them For More Information
If your client appears to be very committed to the mistaken information or belief, ask them to for more information about the belief and why they believe it. You can say something along the lines of: “That’s interesting. I was not aware of that. Are you sure? Do you remember the case name?” and so forth. By asking them to explain the position to you, you might resolve the issue by identifying the foundation of their mistaken belief and addressing that first.
The Direct Approach
If all else fails you may have to tell your client point blank that they are wrong. Be as gentle and diplomatic as possible when breaking the news. Most importantly, be ready to back up your claims with all relevant case law, evidence, etc. A good place to start would be by saying: “I’m sorry, but I don’t think that is right. I’ve done the research and looked into this.”