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Mastering Client Care

When Clients Get Angry About Results

By Ryan Sullivan

Sad truth: Nobody wins all the time. 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.

Here are five client relations tips to prevent or (if need be) alleviate a client’s anger over a not-so-happy ending.

Soothing the Bad-Outcome Beast

1. Avoid burst-bubble syndrome by managing grandiose expectations up front. Managing client expectations about case outcomes can be tricky. After all, to get the clients’ business in the first place, you must sell them on why you are the top attorney for the job. But 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.

2. Toot your own horn along the trail. Make sure your clients are aware of all the hard work you are putting into their case as you prepare for the big day. 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.

3. Prepare your after-party game plan. Before the big day arrives, craft a plan for potential disappointment. 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. 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.

4. Master the emotional advantage. Remember, you are the professional here. 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.

5. Remember number one. 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. 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.

Never allow an angry client or a bad outcome to define who you are or how you practice law.

Categories: Attorney Client Relations, Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch, You At Work
Originally published November 7, 2013
Last updated February 23, 2022
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Ryan Sullivan

Ryan Sullivan has been a trial lawyer for almost 14 years, practicing exclusively indigent criminal defense. A speaker, writer and trainer, Ryan believes a sense of humor and the ability to frame events positively, combined with solid professional skills, leads directly to career and business success. Her experience working and training others in challenging careers has given her the skills to manage the toughest customers, speak and present persuasively, and shine under stressful circumstances. Ryan and her husband have three children, three dogs and a home suspended in a perpetual state of DIY remodeling.

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