How Do I Give Bad News to a Quick-Tempered Client?

When clients come to an attorney with a legal issue, it’s generally at a point after they have already tried to solve the problem in other ways. Depending upon their personalities, they may be very short on patience. This can be daunting when a lawyer needs to give advice, particularly when the advice contains some bad news for the clients or their businesses. So how do we steel ourselves to give clients bad news, knowing that our hair will probably be blown back when we do that?

When I started working at a large healthcare corporation, I was only a few years out of law school and had worked long enough at a law firm to have acquired a deflated sense of self-worth. One of my first clients at the new job was, to put it bluntly, “difficult”: he was extremely demanding, he raised his voice, he tried mightily to avoid attorney advice. He terrified me.

Increasingly, I felt that he was not interested in hearing what I had to say, which set up a vicious cycle: I went into every successive meeting at a lower level of self-confidence and a higher level of anxiety. The more fearful and anxious I became, the less able I was to give him advice in a straightforward manner. The lack of self-assurance in my abilities came across in my voice and presentation to him. This further aggravated him and led him to vent his frustration at me until, at one meeting, he screamed at me. I had to leave the meeting briefly to compose myself. Needless to say, this was not a productive relationship. He ultimately apologized for his behavior, which led to a better personal interaction, but it was some time before I realized how I could have broken this cycle and made myself heard in a constructive way.

Experience and self-reflection taught me a few things along the way. The next time I ran into this kind of behavior on my client’s part, I asked myself, “What is going on with this client? Why is he behaving this way?” I put myself in the client’s position: he was working in a very competitive field. His business, which had been extraordinarily innovative for many years, had suddenly run into steep competition and was losing market share weekly. In order to come up with a viable product, he would have to navigate a virtual maze of patents. He was frustrated that this was the case and was venting his frustration on me, the patent attorney, bearer of bad news. Notwithstanding, I was confident in my analysis, having vetted it with several colleagues and my supervisor. After empathetic reflection, I had an epiphany: I could not take his frustration as a comment on my skills.

Second, I asked myself, “What am I afraid of?” Of course, getting yelled at or treated in a negative fashion is uncomfortable. But it was more irritating than terrifying. I discovered that his treatment of me made me doubt myself. It generated the feeling that my advice and analysis weren’t good enough, that if only I were a “better lawyer”, I could have come up with a way for him to operate in complete freedom despite the existence of these patents. It wasn’t the client who was causing the feelings of fear, it was my own inner voice! No matter how well I had prepared for the meeting, unless I addressed the voice that was telling me I was “not good enough,” I would never be able to give advice in a way that the client could hear me. I changed my focus from the client to myself, which removed the fear I was feeling from the client.

Third, I asked, “Given what the client is going through and presuming that I am prepared to give advice, what’s the best way to convey this advice to the client and solve the issue?” I considered (1) what the client needed to hear to support his or her business, (2) how the client needed to hear that advice and (3) how to help the client understand that we all needed to work as a team to solve the issue.

The client needed to know the situation in order to address it, no matter how difficult it would be to hear. Further, knowing that my sense of confidence in the advice would affect the tone of voice I would use in conveying that advice, I practiced giving the advice out loud to find the right, comfortable tone of voice for me to present it. If I sounded secure, the client would hear that confidence and listen to the advice, even if it was difficult to hear. And, finally, pulling the client into the solution would defuse his or her anger and direct the energy toward unravelling the problem and finding a business answer to the issues involved.

So, how to give tough advice to a tough client? Consider your own part in the equation and how you yourself influence the response you receive. If you’d like to work on this aspect of your practice, please visit my website at www.ProSeLawyerCoach.com and book an appointment. See you there!