Responding intentionally and appropriately to an emotional client takes practice and patience. It is work – but it is also a critical skill for family lawyers to cultivate.
By Hayley Kehner, Family Lawyer
Divorces and other family law cases are initiated every day, but that fact doesn’t make it any less fear-inducing for the individual who is about to go through the legal process. When we represent a client in a family law matter, we are holding that individual’s heart in our hands; we are assisting in guiding the fate of their future; we are dissecting their life and creating a new one – fear-inducing, indeed.
The level of uncertainty that occupies every legal proceeding tends to elevate client fear. This uncertainty forces us to enter the quagmire of reminding our clients that there are no guarantees while simultaneously assuring them that they will be okay. Often, in an effort to provide our emotional clients the assurance they desire, we highlight our own experience. We say something along the lines of, “It will be okay. Remember, I see this every day” or, “Try to relax – I handle cases like yours every day.”
Telling an Emotional Client “I Do This Every Day” Is Not Reassuring
As a collective, lawyers tend to get stuck in expressing this sentiment to clients and then expecting them to feel some sort of relief as if the fact that we practice family law every day should immediately alleviate their concerns regarding their own particular case. The sentiment is a fallacy that ignores the reality that each client and legal matter has a unique set of characteristics. Because each matter is unique, we cannot and do not “do” each respective client’s case every day.
Our clients know we practice family law daily. They wouldn’t hire us if we didn’t. When we are skilled, qualified, and successful in family law matters, we are meeting our bare minimum requirements. Consequently, expressing the “I do this every day” sentiment to clients does not offer the security we hope it will. Rather, it merely provides them with confirmation that we can provide the bare minimum requirements that they have rightfully already expected of us.
So what does this fallacy-ridden sentiment actually do if not comfort our clients? When we express the “I do this every day” sentiment we are actively – albeit often unintentionally – attempting to control our client’s emotional responses to sensitive circumstances.
We are discrediting the fact that the people and experiences that have shaped our clients’ respective lives differ from those that shaped the number of other lives, and in turn cases, we have handled. We are also discrediting clients’ very real and rational fears regarding the legal process. Then, we have the audacity to become perplexed – and even worse, irritated – when they continue to have an emotional response to their circumstances and case.
Meet Your Clients Where They Are in Each Moment
Instead of offering the “I do this every day” platitude in the face of client emotions, we need to meet each client where they are – both emotionally and in the legal process. Meeting clients where they are looks and sounds like a lot of different things because each client and their set of circumstances are unique.
Sometimes, meeting a client where they are in the moment requires us simply to listen and say nothing at all. In contrast, sometimes meeting an emotional client where they are may require us to commiserate with their expressions of rage towards their soon-to-be ex. Ultimately, to properly meet each client where they are in the moment requires us not only to listen and assess the facts and circumstances of the client’s case but also to listen and assess our client’s emotional state and persona.
To be able to respond intentionally and appropriately to the range of emotions that each client brings with them takes practice and patience. Getting to the point where this kind of response to client emotions is second nature is work. However, this skill is critical to providing our clients with the representation that they need and deserve.
Hayley Kehner is an associate attorney with Naggiar & Sarif, LLC, who practices exclusively in the area of family law. Prior to joining Naggiar & Sarif, Hayley clerked for the Honorable Judge Edward Lukemire in Houston County Superior Court. www.nsfamilylawfirm.com
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