Given that many lawyers start their careers reviewing documents for months on end, it’s no surprise that interacting with clients can seem like an important milestone and a welcome reprieve from living in the doc review den.
But once you start interacting with clients you realize you now have a whole new problem: And that problem is your clients. While it doesn’t bear much external resemblance to a GAP store, legal services can feel a lot like retail. Only instead of the client always being right, you have to somehow often tell the client they are wrong and still keep them happy with your work. No one likes to be told they are wrong, and especially not when they are paying for the privilege.
And because they are paying for the privilege, clients are often perceived to have unrealistic expectations of what can be done in what amount of time, as though they have hired a team of robots who don’t need to eat, sleep, or have anything resembling a personal life. Those pressures filter all the way down the firm food chain. Even at a non-profit, where clients aren’t paying for representation, there’s still time pressure and the need to manage client expectations and communication.
All of those challenges exist to some degree. But we can’t change the structure of the legal profession overnight. So what can you do about the stress of managing difficult clients?
The first thing to get clear about is what causes the stress. It’s not actually the clients. It’s your thoughts about the clients. And these usually come in two varieties: (1) my client is the worst, or (2) I am the worst.
Let me explain.
When we are stressed out about someone else’s behavior, it’s because we are making it mean something about them, or something about ourselves. After all if a friend told you about a nightmare client of theirs, someone you would never meet or work with, you wouldn’t care much. It’s not the existence of the client. It’s what you make it mean that this person acts the way they do.
The first category occurs when we have a lot of opinions about how someone else should behave. Lawyers tend to like black and white rules and have clear codes of conduct in their minds that they believe everyone should follow. You’ll know if you’re in this category if your reaction to your difficult clients is to get angry at them. That’s a sign that you are being resistant to the fact that they exist and are they way they are. You believe they should be different, and so you’re angry that they aren’t. The way to deal with this category of stress is to practice accepting the fact that the client is how the client is. It’s like a dog barking or a rainstorm, it’s just something that exists. In this situation the only problem you have is that you keep thinking “They shouldn’t act this way.” If you thought it was fine for them to act this way, you wouldn’t be angry with them at all.
(Now I know that your brain tells you that accepting how they act and not resisting it would be “letting them win.” But here’s the thing; They are already winning. They are already acting exactly how they act, and you being angry at them doesn’t hurt them. They don’t feel it, and it has no negative consequences for them. The only person who experiences your anger is you. It doesn’t teach them anything.)
The second category occurs when you are making the client’s behavior mean something about your own job performance or prospects for advancement. You’ll know this is what you’re doing if your feel about the client is anxiety, rather than anger. Anxiety is created by the perception of a threat or a danger. If you’re feeling anxiety about a client, it’s because of what you are making their reaction mean.
For instance, if the client is upset with you, what are you making that mean: That you aren’t a good lawyer? That you don’t do a good job? That the client will complain to the partner on the case? That the partner will criticize you? That you won’t get promoted?
All of these are thoughts – just sentences you are saying in your brain – that are creating anxiety for you. You have no idea if any of them are true or if any of them would happen. Even if the client is upset and even if the client complains to a partner, you’re still 30 steps from ending up living under a bridge. But when you’re in lawyer brain catastrophizing mode, you make the client’s unhappiness or displeasure mean something terrible about your abilities or your future.
So whether you’re feeling angry or anxious – whether you’re making the client’s actions mean something about them or about you – the result is that you are actually the one causing your own suffering.
We could all take a vote and agree that these clients are horrible human beings who should be set adrift on an ice float without GPS or access to a phone. But it wouldn’t matter. They are the way they are, and law is a service business. So there’s no avoiding them.
What you can change is how heavy your brain leans on the four-bell alarm when it encounters them. Believing that the client is the worst or that you are the worst are both going to create intense feelings.
So when it comes to angry clients, what works best is practicing thoughts that accept that the clients are how they are. For instance:
Dealing with clients like this is just part of the job.
This client yelling is like a dog barking – dogs always bark, this client always yells.
This client would curse at anyone, it has nothing to do with me.
When it comes to clients who make you feel anxious, the trick is practicing thoughts about yourself and your abilities that are more confidence-boosting. For example:
A client having a tantrum means nothing about my abilities.
Everyone knows this client is difficult and no one is going to blame that on me.
I could do my work 100% perfectly and this client would still complain because he just likes to complain – it has nothing to do with the quality of my work.
The key, as always, is figuring out what you are thinking that is creating anger or anxiety, and then figuring out something you can think on purpose instead that will feel a little (or a lot) better.
If you’d like to work through this process in more detail, check out the recent episode of my podcast on this topic, The Lawyer Stress Solution: “How to Deal with Difficult Clients.”
Kara Loewentheil is a former litigator and academic who now runs a boutique life coaching practice for law students and lawyers. Intimately acquainted with the unique challenges lawyers face in their professional careers and personal lives, Kara teaches her clients cognitive-based techniques for dealing with stress, anxiety, and lawyer brain so that they can build the lives and careers they want. Kara works with individuals, law schools, and law firms to improve productivity, efficiency, job satisfaction, and professional development at all stages of a legal career. Kara is also the host of a new podcast, The Lawyer Stress Solution, available on iTunes. To download a free guide to taming anxious lawyer brain, go to www.thelawyerstresssolution.com/guide.