The Simple Lawyer’s Guide To Getting Shot

There are many websites providing deep insight into how lawyers can be wildly successful and gain extraordinary wealth by this one cool trick. The Puddle has made a business of it, as a new potential reader is born every minute. For the most part, old lawyers ignore this sort of tripe, in the hope and expectation that smart lawyers will know better than to turn to these insipid advice sites for their insipid advice, and because legal Malthusians figure you get what you deserve, provided no clients are harmed in the process.

But this one is too dumb to ignore.

At one time or another in your career, you will confront an angry client. Unfortunately, law school does not prepare us for dealing with clients. We are dependent on our own life skills and common sense to handle these situations. Presumably, as we gain experience in practice, we get better at it. However, you don’t have to be a senior lawyer with 30 years of practice to be able to calm an angry client quickly and effectively.

Do clients get angry? You bet. They don’t come to lawyers because we’re fun to hang out with, and the circumstances tend to evoke some unpleasant feelings on their part. Client management is a critical part of practicing law, but is calming them, “quickly and effectively,” a magic trick?

First, for the first 90 seconds, ignore the client’s words. I know, I know, words are important. Trust me. Ignore the words for the first 90 seconds. If you listen to the words with your usual lawyer ears, you might get triggered and emotional. You might get pissed off. You might become impatient or frustrated. And if any of those things happen to you, you are likely to say the worst thing possible to your client. So, ignore the words.

Have “lawyer ears” changed that much that they’re no longer attuned to clients’ concerns, but overwhelmed by the lawyer’s emotions so that you “might get triggered”? Triggered? What the fuck? If you are so incapable of controlling your emotions, apply for that assistant manager job at Dairy Queen and get out of law. It’s not right for you.

More importantly, the client is your sole reason for being a lawyer. What your client has to say, what she’s angry about, may very well be entirely justified. Whether it’s you, the system, or something else, the only justification that exists for your being a lawyer is to listen to that client.

If they’re furious at you for not returning phone calls, not keeping them abreast of their case, not doing what you told them you would do when you grabbed their fee, they’ve got damn good reason to be angry with you. Your excuses for why you failed them aren’t their problem, and contrary to your preferred lawyer tummy-rubber, their needs come first and your feelings have no place in your practice. And it might trigger you? Well, isn’t that a shame.

And if they’re angry for reasons that have nothing to do with you, deal with it. That’s your job.

Second, guess at the emotions the client might be experiencing in that moment.This is a little tricky because we have been trained to be dispassionate and unemotional concerning client problems. Use your own experience and common sense to guess at what the emotional experience of the moment is.

How your emotional triggering and “dispassionate” training interrelate in this scenario is unclear, but regardless, there is no need to guess at the emotions of an angry client. He’s angry. That’s how anger works. More to the point, you’re not his therapist, mother or puppy. You’re his lawyer. If the client has a problem that makes him angry, your job is fix the problem, not feel his pain.

Third, state back the client’s emotional experience with a very short, direct “you” statement, such as “you are angry.” Do not ask a question like “are you angry?” And, do not use an “I” statement, such as “what I hear you saying is that you are angry.” Keep the statement direct and focused on the client.

Finally, the one simple trick, because this works so well in every encounter with a customer service rep from Bangalore who is sorry for the inconvenience and understands your frustration*.

It might seem patronizing or disrespectful to reflect back the emotional experience of an angry client. Neuroscience shows us through brain scanning studies, that when we reflect back the emotional experience of the speaker, the brain’s emotional centers quiet down and the prefrontal cortex comes back online very quickly. While the exact process is still unknown, it seems as if, as a listener, you are lending your prefrontal cortex to the speaker to allow the speaker to process his or her emotional experience in the moment.

Not that I’m any more reluctant than anyone else to get my neuroscience advice from a lawyer (cites are for kids), but this is not merely simplistic and nonsensical, but irrelevant. When your client is angry, listen carefully, pay close attention to the problem and then deal with it. If something needs fixing, fix it. If you’ve screwed up, admit it, apologize and never do it again. And if the client is wrong, explain why. But don’t lie to yourself or your client by trying to slough off your failure as his mistake.

Does this mean you could be potentially triggered when the client informs you that he’s just a little miffed that you promised him you would return phone calls and didn’t, promised his case was “easy” and would go away if only he paid your retainer, promised you had the mad lawyer skillz to win, win, win? You bet it does, and it’s your own bullshit that gave rise to the trigger.

If you don’t deal with it, then don’t be shocked if the client pulls the trigger. And if you follow this incredibly idiotic cool trick, when a client’s life or fortune is on the line and your lawyerly feelz aren’t the first thing on the client’s mind, don’t be surprised by what happens after the trigger gets pulled.

*In some quarters, this alone will be sufficient justification for a damn good tuning up.

42 thoughts on “The Simple Lawyer’s Guide To Getting Shot

  1. Billy Bob

    Lawyers and doctors have One Thing in common: They interrupt you three times in the first minute, and six times in the first five (on average). When a certain appellate lawyer in a certain New England state listened to me on the phone for forty-five full minutes without interrupting once, I was stunned.

    This Never happens! He does not have time to blog or comment on blawgs. Ha. There are a million reasons not to like lawyers, and not listening to the client, or potential client, is just one of them. “Ignore the clients words for the first 90 seconds”?!? Who came up with that dumb idea?

    1. SHG Post author

      Have you consider, dear Bill, that you have an extraordinary ability to make clear in the short span of 90 seconds where your problem lies? You are, dare I say it, special.

      1. Billy Bob

        You lawyers have an extraordinary ability to explain what cannot be done and why. Well, some of you! Complex cases demand complex solutions. Many of your brethren are looking for the slam-dunk. If it’s not apparent in the first 90 seconds, they’re out the door. In my field of endeavor, slam-dunks are rare. You make a living thru ordinary, everyday, unremarkable transactions which seldom show up on the radar screen. There’s nothing wrong with bread and butter if you’re hungry.
        A slice of ripe tomato and a little olive oil makes it even better.

        Bring CAPTCHA back. This new anti-robot function is for the Birds.

  2. Jeff Gamso

    Assistant manager at Dairy Queen? You think that’s easier than being a lawyer?

    Customers! (Grrr!!!) Employees! (GRRRR!!!!) Next thing you know he’s gone postal (am I dating myself with that?)

    Why not jet fighter pilot? Or trauma surgeon? Now there’s a pair of stress-free jobs. Oh, wait.

    Lawyering can be hard, even stressful dammit. And if you’ll permit me a link, just ask Charles Salvagio.

  3. michael woodward

    This strikes me as Robolaw at its best. Hear the client rant, and interject “You are angry”. Artificial intelligence wins the day. Of course a human lawyer, having ignored the words for 90 seconds, would be obliged to instead say “Huh?”.

    Look forward to trying out this “You are angry” after a 90 second rant by a judge. Has to be a winner, right? Will report back on that, hopefully not from cells.

  4. Erik H

    What the hell? If your “usual lawyer ears” are “triggered and emotional” how on earth are you managing to be a lawyer in the first place? And I can only imagine how the “ignore content and give feedback” thing would work:

    Client: Man, my wife just stabbed me with a fork last night and then she called the cops and now she’s accusing me of…

    Lawya: Stop right there. I can’t even.

    Client: What the fuck? Look, SHE stabbed ME.

    Lawya: You’re angry.

    Client: Damn right I’m angry. I got stabbed in the ass with a fucking fork. And now the cops are…

    Lawya: [staring into the distance]

    Client: Are you listening?

    Lawya: What? Oh, sorry. You’re asking a question.

    Client: Yeah, I am. And the question is: Are you fucking paying any attention to me?

    Lawya: You’re angry.

    Hell, that could go on all day.

    P.S. Your new captcha is long and annoying. Bring back math!

  5. B. McLeod

    This little advisory piece is just like a “Shannon Achimalbe” post. You may have found the author who lurks behind the “Shannon Achimalbe” curtain.

  6. Mario Machado

    It’s a good thing clients never lie to their lawyers (outside the first 90 seconds), especially when it’s the client’s ass on the line. How would The Puddle’s readership recover from what they’ll perceive as the ultimate betrayal?

    By the way, I miss the math problems for the captcha. Bring it back!

    1. SHG Post author

      Wow, shocking support for math today. What next, questions based on the periodic table?

      Clients lie? That would be . . . wrong.

      1. Jim Tyre

        In all seriousness, the new captcha creates real problems for the visually impaired. So I presume you went to it in a failed attempt to thwart me.

      2. Jyjon

        Your robot capture didn’t even bother to vet me properly, it took my word for it without even checking. That means anonymous digital streams don’t lie, according to your captcha. So then you need to upgrade your client interface to be digital instead of analog.

        Math would be the best. Though I would suggest using Sexagesimal instead. It’s not like people don’t know how to do that kind of math, everyone uses it every day.

        1. B. McLeod

          I have noticed that it is not running me through the click-the-picture gauntlet either. Somehow, it must have otherwise ascertained to its satisfaction that I am not a robot.

  7. Charles

    This technique really is effective. Ignore the client for the first 90 seconds, longer if possible. Eventually the client will get up and leave. Then, the Bar Association will call. Ignore them, too. Soon, someone will send you a letter informing you that you no longer hold a troublesome license to practice law.

    All those angry clients? Now they’re some other lawyer’s problem. And you? You may not have a license or any clients, but you still have a full docket of litigation. With the added bonus of having your name in the caption.

  8. DaveL

    I suppose that guessing at your client’s feelings are all you could do, since you just spent the last 90 seconds explicitly ignoring what they were saying.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        No, no, no, no, no. The article claimed that the clients were absurdly hysterical, not hysterically absurd.

  9. Jeffrey

    I believe you have a rule here, at SJ, that you disallow posts that make people stupider.

    After reading your summary and that link to the relevant post from attorneyatwork, I have determined no such rule exists there.

    I’m still reeling from the stupid I experienced from that reading.

Comments are closed.