How do you Counsel a Distraught Client?

We asked some of our contacts the following questions:

  • When doing your client intakes, how do you deal with a client that is distraught and troubled over their situation?
  • Is it appropriate to to counsel them emotionally to the point where you can receive coherent responses to your questions, and defer detailed interviewing to a subsequent session?
  • Or should you still insist on all of the preliminaries up front, including fee scheduling, retainer, and contact information, especially when there are time constraints to your appointment?

We received responses from counsel across America and Europe.

Avoid Misunderstandings

Rinie Hoogendoorn, Legal Counsel at Mr. R. Moszkowicz B.V. in the Netherlands said,

In my experience, it is best to talk facts with a distraught client and give a fair assessment of the merits of their case, while remaining moderately sympathetic to their plight.
Showing too much empathy with the client is a recipe for misunderstandings later on, since clients in distress may confuse empathy with a positive assessment of their legal position.
As you may have noticed, people in emotional distress, especially over a conflict, sometimes hear only what they want to hear. Emotional clients often ‘blur’ the emotional side with the legal side and seek endorsement of their legal claims along with emotional support.
The last thing you should do in such a situation is to tone down ‘unpleasant’ facts and howl with

Striking a Balance

Jason Dickstein, a lawyer with The Washington Aviation Group, PC, said,

Nearly every client that you first meet in the context of an ‘intake interview’ is going to be distraught and troubled over their situation. If they were not, then they probably would not be interested in coming to an attorney.

You need to strike a balance between professionalism and compassion. Obviously, a client who is so distraught that he or she cannot think straight will need your help to become a bit more stable in order to assist by providing facts about the legal matter at hand.

It is also important that the client trust that you are going to be able pursue the result sought. To this end, it does help to build psychological bridges to the client. One important way to do this is to simply listen actively, demonstrating your interest in the client and in the client’s story.

At the same time, you need to be careful about making promises about results. Clients want to be told that everything is going to be OK, and that they are going to win. Often, you cannot guarantee this; and the fact that you cannot make such a guarantee may be a source of distress to the client.

Do not allow the client’s distress to force you into making predictions that are inaccurate – if you over-promise and under deliver then you will add to the client’s long-term distress, and undermine the client’s trust in you and in the profession.

You must also remember that as an attorney you are in a business. You should be aware that some clients WILL try to take advantage of your good nature to receive the benefit of your representation without paying for that benefit – it is just human nature; and you may find that many clients who have been wronged by someone else do not think it is ‘fair’ that they should have to pay for the legal services necessary to pursue justice.

So yes, you should follow your normal protocols for establishing the attorney-client relationship and for securing your ability to be paid for your services.

spockMr. Spock is the Model

Bernard “Bud” McBride, Attorney Principal at Law Ofc of B. McBride specializing in Labour and Employment Law in >Sarasota, Florida, said,

You question presupposes that a potential client coming to see you is or should otherwise be happy. As if distraught clients meeting is the exception and not the rule.

Why do you think the profession is so hated, generally speaking when a new client walks in the door they have a problem which can be summed up into three basic problems: criminal, civil or family.

I always told clients that I am not here to judge but to inform you as to your legal options and possible outcomes. If at times it seems that I do not express great care, that is not the case.

The best lawyers look at issues and problems with cool and detached analytics.

Emotions have little if anything to do with it. You want real advice then I need to tell you as if I were Mr. Spock and not Dr. McCoy.

The Golden Rule
Michael E. Clark, a partner at Hamel Bowers & Clark LLP in Houston, Texas, said,

I try to treat people the way I would like to be treated, realizing, as others have noted, it is important to explain things to them that they may not understand, and to try to ensure that they understand what has been said to them (what medicine refers to as informed consent).

I always try to ask if this is a client that I want or need, since in all professionals there are warning signs to consider, such as how many other lawyers has this person had in the past, and why are they unhappy with other counsel. I fully agree that lawyers are selling themselves and need to try to ensure that the client understands there are limits, ethically and legally, that a professional cannot and will not cross.

Reputations are built incrementally in this business, and trying to ensure that clients are realistic at the front end of a relationship is critical to avoiding problems later on.

There are always time constraints involved, but professionalism requires finding ways to make each person who seeks assistance feel that s/he has been given a full and fair consideration and treated with respect.

It’s Still a Business

Devora Lindeman an attorney (Senior Counsel) Employment at Greenwald Doherty LLP in New York City said,

If a client comes in to a lawyer’s office so distraught that they need to be “counseled emotionally to the point where you can receive coherent responses,” then the responses you are otherwise getting, to state the obvious, are not coherent.

A lawyer can not base any intake on anything other than the information and facts presented at the time of intake. You need this information in order to be able to tell if this is a case you want to handle. If the client is not up to “coherent response,” I would not discuss fees, retainer etc.

I would presume that the potential client’s ability to perceive and comprehend is in a similar state to their ability to communicate and relay information, i.e., non-existent. Many people who are upset forget important information, or have a particular “take” on the facts that may be somewhat removed from the reality of the situation. You need potential clients to be in a mental state whereby they can correctly, and accurately (to the extent possible) relay the facts of the situation. This does not mean that they are not at all upset. They might be, but they also should be able to rationally communicate with you before you discuss things you want to make sure they understand, like your fee schedule.

It is going to be a judgment call as to whether the lawyer is capable of calming the person down (which can sometimes be done simply by asking “tell me what’s happening?” and letting them talk for a while, with a box of tissues and perhaps glass of water at hand), or not. The lawyer should know his or her abilities to deal with people.

Yes, I would recommend to be human, first, but lawyers are not social workers and their time is valuable. If the person can not be calmed down to a rational state, it might be better to schedule another appointment when the person is more rational and can be in a mental framework to understand the business aspects of the lawyer/client relationship that you are trying to create.

You do have a business to run and it is your decision how much time you want to spend in the situation, however your compassion and understanding might be a selling point if, for example, it is a divorce or a personal injury case where the client is going to need a lot of reassuring throughout the matter.

In general, I would recommend:

  • (a) obtaining sufficient information to determine whether this is a matter you can and you want to handle.
  • At that point, usually (b) fees, retainer, contact information etc. should be discussed.

If you can’t get coherent answers to (a), it would not be appropriate to move to (b) in any event, in my opinion.

Interdisciplinary Advice
We also asked some of our colleagues who were not in the legal industry of their opinions.

Nirupama Kotecha, an independent translator in London, U.K., said,

Although I am not a lawyer or a doctor I have closely worked with both professions as an interpreter, and over three decades have been the ‘voice’ of both – the distressed client /patient and the calm professional.

In the course of my work I have often been struck by how similar some situations are for both lawyers and doctors in dealing with distraught clients/patients. I understand for the medical profession it forms part of their training; I do not know if legal professional training involves this scenario or not, but I can say that the best lawyers I have worked with deal with this in the same manner as the best doctors – with a calm and detached sympathy that conveys a ‘professionalism’ which is far more reassuring to a person in distress who comes to them for help, than demonstrations of sympathy on a personal level.

[Some Canadian schools such as UofO, do offer formal client counseling courses; many do not]

Even when language is a barrier which necessitates an outsider’s presence and intervention such as that of an interpreter, it is the first impression of the lawyer’s /doctor’s demeanour that creates the impact – the look, the handshake, the tone of voice of calm and sympathetic authority that makes a client feel secure and calms them down. As an interpreter, I have learned much from having to reflect this in my own demeanour. After all, even the most distraught client knows he/she has come to a professional for professional help and expects to be treated on a professional basis not on a personal basis and as such it is the professional manner which wins their confidence and calms them down enough to be able to say what they want to say and listen to what you have to say. That is when time constraints could be mentioned which tend to immediately engage the client’s focus and lead on to other ‘business’ matters.

Liz Zitzow, a British accountant in London, U.K. said,

You are a human being first, and an accountant or lawyer or whatever you are much further down the line. Be the kind, caring person you would want to have someone be to you.

S/he is buying from YOU, not your company. You are building a relationship with this person. If s/he thinks this is the best way to spend the initial consultation hour, it’s their dime and the customer is always right. Your fees will, of course, be commensurately higher to include the hand-holding that customer wants.

If you have any human interactions skills at all, you should be able to calm them down enough to at least get their name & address before they go.
You can write up some preliminary documents that cover fees, retainers, money laundering regs, etc., and post these to the person. They can review them at their leisure when they are feeling more up to the task. It’s fine to write somewhere “scope of the project is not yet known, and further conversations will be required before a final fee quote is provided”.

Follow up with a call about a week after you send out the packet, asking if they’re feeling any better, and if they’re up to scheduling a second visit to wrangle out the details.

Andrew Baker, Vice President of IT Operations at Automated Resources Group (ARGI) in New York city said,

As the saying goes, people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.
If your focus appears to be just about closing the deal, then whenever they have calmed down on their own, that recollection or realization will likely cause them to move in a different direction.

If, however, you first address their emotional concerns as a sympathetic human being, and subsequently make additional arrangements to address the details of the engagement, you will have a much better — and possibly longer — client relationship.

Lynn Seiser Ph.D., a psychologist with the Seiser Institute of IdentityTherapy said,

…sequentially it is wise to establish a contract prior to offering services or interventions.

Jeannette Cezanne, an independent author and President of Customline Wordware said,

I’m assuming that your potential client is upset over something that’s relevant to your intake, so that it makes sense for him or her to bring it to your attention. (Otherwise, frankly, he/she shouldn’t be in your office at all — if she/he is too distressed to conduct business coherently.) In that case, it makes sense to allow the client to vent about whatever is upsetting him or her; it may make a difference in your intake procedures.

On the other hand, unless you have training, I’d counsel against counseling.

It’s not an area for the faint of heart … or those without the necessary credentials.

Nathan von Colditz of the TriZetto Group said,

Well – a step back is needed here. There is such thing as a bad customer and you should be smart to try to attract good customers. However, in the case of a good distraught customer – be human, listen, learn, and then make sure it does not happen again.

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