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.