A special problem for counsel consulting on neighboring property disputes, particularly those dealing with easements and boundaries, is the intense emotional involvement most clients have in their property. Know the warnings signs of a client whose emotions are going to be a problem, and either don’t take the case or get out fast.
Attorneys who regularly handle property disputes know that psychological issues of personal space and the integrity of that space, personal identity, self-worth as measured by property ownership, fear and distrust of “the other,” and similar fundamental human feelings and emotions are bound up with ownership of real property.
And on top of those psychological issues, our individualistic and rights-oriented society tends to lead clients to stand “on principle” and resist compromise in property rights cases.
The good news is that most clients can get past their feelings and agree to consider reasonable compromises of their property disputes. With these clients, it’s helpful to allow them to express their feelings both during the initial consultation and during mediation or litigation of the dispute. Usually they’re just looking for a sympathetic acknowledgment by you or a neutral hearing the case that their anger, hurt, distrust, and fear are being heard by someone.
But there are also some clients who can’t control their emotions, and this lack of control prevents them from exercising good judgment in making decisions about the case. These clients often won’t consider reasonable compromises or cooperate in discovery, and will complain if you’re polite to opposing counsel. These clients will undermine your efforts to solve their legal problem—and you’d be wise to decline to represent them.
So how do you know which type of client you’re dealing with when someone comes in for a consultation on an easement or boundary dispute? Most will show emotions, but you need to try to figure out whether the client’s emotions will prevent you from resolving the client’s problem. Here are some warning signs to look out for:
- The client refuses to discuss possible compromise solutions;
- The client engages in “name calling” about the neighbor;
- The client refuses to accept the state of the law as you describe it;
- The client argues excessively with you;
- The client adamantly rejects mediation or other alternative dispute resolution; and
- The client exhibits anger or paranoia that you think is extreme under the facts of the situation.
These warning signs usually emerge when you ask the client to factually summarize the dispute, state his or her specific goals, consider alternatives to litigation, or when you try to negotiate and develop a reasonable plan for the first phase of the legal representation. If you see the warning signs, take them seriously.
For everything you need to know about litigating easement and boundary disputes, including a handy checklist on the Dos and Don’ts in Boundary Location Disputes, turn to CEB’s California Easements and Boundaries: Law and Litigation, chaps 8, 10. And check out CEB’s Neighbor Disputes: Law and Litigation for more on dealing with emotional clients.
If you’re unsure about whether to withdraw from an overheated case, you can always contact the California State Bar’s ethics hotline for a free consultation.
Other CEBblog™ posts you may find interesting:
- Spiteful Neighbors
- Don’t Lose Out on Your Fees in a Neighbor Dispute Case
- Facing a Condemnation? Take These 5 Initial Steps
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