While it’s always a pleasure to deliver good news to a client, it can be risky to deliver bad news.
There’s a tendency for clients to blame the messenger for an unfavorable outcome. Some clients will be angry, others vindictive.
The way to protect yourself is by having a strategy to soothe the unhappy client.
“Nobody wins all the time,” says trial lawyer Ryan Sullivan. “And in the legal business, no shiny ribbons or golden trophies are doled out to ‘participant.’ We may be big girls and big boys able to intellectualize the potential for an unfavorable outcome, but our clients don’t always share our levelheadedness. When things go wrong, some start looking for someone to blame.”
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Calming Your Client and Protecting Yourself
Here are five tips from Ryan Sullivan and Attorney at Work (all quotes are from Sullivan):
- Set reasonable expectations early on. “Be wary of wooing a client with promises about the future that are too good to be true. Nothing stings more than the whiplash of certain victory turned sour. Better to lose one client’s business on the front end than to lose 50 clients because Mr. Disgruntled, suffering from burst-bubble syndrome, runs your name into the virtual mud.”
- Let clients know you’re working hard for them. “If a client hears nothing but crickets on your end and then receives a nasty zinger at the hands of the decision-maker, naturally that client will be stunned. It isn’t enough to communicate solely about the big stuff or the decisions that must be made — you need to let clients in on the ongoing grind. Shoot them quick emails about a bit of progress you’ve made or an interesting discovery, simply to keep them snugly within the loop.”
- Have a closing script. “After a bummer of a hearing, when you’re standing in the hallway white-knuckling your briefcase, it helps to have prepared a three-point action plan that you can summarize for your client on the spot,” according to Sullivan. “While you’re still in the hallway, spend some time listening, present your action plan, set up a future meeting to go over the plan in detail … and then leave the scene of the disaster. The client needs time to grapple with the outcome and will be better able to hear you and respond once the adrenaline has subsided.”
- Be professional. “Walk the fine line between keeping your cool and commiserating. Nobody wants a lawyer carved from ice and stone, but a lawyer who turns into a werewolf post-trial doesn’t inspire confidence either. Right now, this isn’t about your performance or the judge’s blindness or opposing counsel’s tricks. It’s your job to be calming, caring and certain that your client can get through this hot mess with your help. Focus on professionalism. Side note: Afterward, it’s perfectly acceptable to go home, eat a pint of ice cream and indulge in a startling crying jag set off by an insurance commercial.”
- Move on. “Once you’ve eased your client’s anger in your office — and thrown away the empty ice cream carton at home — mentally circle your wagons and remember who the most important person is in your life: You,” writes Sullivan. “Many problems don’t have neat solutions. Sometimes, no matter how hard you fight, the battle will still be lost. You may realize you are powerless to effect change or unable to achieve justice or fairness for your client. But one thing you do have a modicum of control over is how these outcomes affect you.”
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