Difficult lawyer-client relationships

We are all experiencing a great deal of change and uncertainty at present and the legal  profession is no exception. Some of us may be dealing with very distressed or angry clients who were in the middle of a life changing legal matter when COVID-19 hit and are now faced with a delay that could last months, having huge implications for their personal life, business and wellbeing.

The lawyer-client relationship can be complex.  Clients are often looking for more than just a lawyer – you are there to listen, empathise and advise and are often asked   to play the role of teacher, bank, counsellor, doctor, parent, psychiatrist, Samaritan, or even magician!

There may be clients you may think about a lot, who require a lot of time on the phone or email, you may start to worry about them and they can sometimes become a burden. There may be clients who will be furious that their life hangs in the balance and may take it out on you. Legal training often leaves the lawyer ill-prepared for these kinds of highly emotive situations.

Here are a few tips:

  • Before you speak to the client prepare.  Visualise the client in your mind.  Spend a few minutes putting on your imaginary armour reminding yourself that you have boundaries and work out what you want to say.
  • Empathise and acknowledge their feelings.
  • Have some stock phrases rehearsed in your mind:
  • “I can see how angry, sad, scared you are…I will do what I can for you as your lawyer but I am just not able to help with….”
  • “I wonder do you have anyone you can call when you feel like this?”
  • If the client gets very upset, angry or overwrought give them breathing space.“I can see this is really tough, do you want to take a few minutes?”
  • Sometimes just stay silent and give them the space to rage, weep or have their moan. They may just want to be heard.
  • If a client becomes aggressive or abusive you do not have to stay on the call, let them know that you will speak to them later when they have calmed down. 
  • Try to finish by summarising what you have heard and what you plan to do next.
  • If you are concerned for their wellbeing, give them the Samaritans number or any others that you think might be useful.  Don’t ever give them your personal mobile.
  • Have a debrief with a colleague if you’ve had a particularly stressful conversation – it helps to reflect and share your experiences.
  • Remember this is a worldwide situation that is completely out of your control and you can only do your best to help the client.

If you need to talk about a particular difficult client relationship call LawCare on 0800 279 6888, email [email protected] or visit www.lawcare.org.uk  

You might like to check out Fit for Law, a cross-jurisdictional free learning resource on emotional competence and professional resilience, developed for legal professionals in the UK and Ireland  by The Open University and The University of Sheffield in collaboration with LawCare.  Find out more at fitforlaw.org.uk

Leave a Comment