Solo and Small Firm
How to Help Clients Who Worry Excessively
By Dolan Williams
As lawyers, we are experts in the law; however, our job often calls upon us to be pseudo-therapists, managing the emotions of our clients without the benefit of training. Law schools do not generally aid with client management, and in the mass of resources on law firm growth strategies, the industry is devoid of ways to help understand and deal with clients who suffer from worry.
Your clients undoubtedly come to you with their worries. As lawyers, we try to ease our clients’ worries, but even the most educated lawyer can be left scratching their head on how to deal with a client who has difficulty seeing past the worst-case scenario. Putting some of the following tools into practice can help.
II. WHAT IS 'WORRY,' REALLY?
Worry is only fear manifested. Worry is a natural part of the human psyche and is impossible to fully defeat. When we worry, we cling to an attachment to some specific outcome, and our worry constantly tells us to be afraid that the scenario we want to occur will not occur. Even if we have evidence to the contrary, the fear can be too gripping. In my practice, I have seen worry turn into anxiety, or worse, paranoia. In most cases, the worry builds to a point where the client can only discuss imagined scenarios, often getting away from the reason they came to see me in the first place. Understanding the tools needed to manage worry can help your practice.
III. HOW DOES THIS ALL RELATE TO THE SOLO PRACTITIONER OR A SMALL FIRM?
Rule 1.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct generally requires a lawyer to perform legal services with competence. Subsection (b) says that “competence” applies to the “mental, emotional, and physical ability reasonably necessary for the performance of such service.” As such, a lawyer’s competency includes the ability to deal with the frustration of worried clients. Managing client worry can limit distractions to pave way for the lawyer’s skills to flourish.
Here are some common worries your clients may express:
I am worried about being fired;
I am worried about my ex-wife getting custody of my kids;
I am worried my business is going to get sued.
These are all fears. Resolving all their fears is unrealistic. Ignoring their fears is unprofessional. The legal profession is a profession of trust, and worried clients are often hypersensitive to criticism and non-verbal cues. An exasperated sigh. An annoyed grunt. An eye roll. All these behaviors can drive clients away. Understanding techniques to manage worries will help you retain more clients and manage an aspect of lawyering not found in a hornbook.
IV. WHAT ARE STRATEGIES TO HELP CLIENTS FIGHT THEIR WORRIES?
The best book ever written about handling worry is Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Published in 1948, the book has helped millions of people manage their worries to take back their lives. This book has many principles I have applied successfully over and again when dealing with clients and these are strategies you can apply as well. These principles are questions, reminders, and suggestions to clients to help them solve problems that cannot be easily resolved by quoting a legal code or case.
The top five principles and strategies that have helped my clients fight their worries consisted of the following:
- The most important principle is to ask a client, “Ask yourself, ‘What is the worst that can possibly happen?’ Prepare to accept the worst. Then, try to improve on the worst." Asking this question to clients often calms them down. As human beings, we can create incredible scenarios of how we believe a situation may play out. I once did a divorce where a client’s ex-husband had become remarried to someone else, and the ex-husband explained he was coming for custody of their son. She worried about him saying that his remarriage would grant him custody. She worried she may even have to pay child support. At first, I tried the rational approach, asking her how she believed his remarriage affects custody, but her worries were just too strong. When this happened, I switched gears to dig into her worst-case scenario. We understood what the worst-case scenario was (she would lose custody). I then asked her to consider this as a possibility, however remote. Finally, I asked her what are some things we could do to prevent this from happening? Eventually, she came to see that the relationship with dad needed repair and that if she continued to provide the stability and support to the child she always had, the chance a judge would order a change was low. By clarifying the worst-case scenario first, your clients can then begin to focus on what things can make it better, helping both of you strategize better.
- The second most important principle is to “Remind yourself of the exorbitant price you can pay for worry in terms of your health.” Giving clients this reminder can be critical to help clients fight their worry, and give you the time and space to solve problems. Worry creates intense stress in people. The American Psychological Association says, “Chronic stress may also cause disease, either because of the changes in your body or the overeating, smoking, and other bad habits people use to cope with stress.” (American Psychological Association, 2013). In situations where a client has trouble coping with the stress, I add, “I can imagine how much sleep you’ve lost over this.” Nearly every person that is worried will explain they have not slept in days because of their legal issue. I had a client who was afraid she was to be evicted because her neighbors complained about the noise. The property manager had never posted an eviction notice, there was no court hearing on the matter, and her lease was still in effect. My strategy about the worst-case scenario did not work, so I reminded her that her sleep and her health will end up killing her before an eviction would. Thankfully, understanding that she may end up harming herself helped her see past her worry.
- The third most important principle is to suggest to the client to “Use the law of averages to outlaw your worries.” We all tend to catastrophize. I had a client who was an executive and he was convinced he was going to be fired. He said he was a top producer. He said his relationship with the CEO was just fine. He even got along with everyone at work. I began asking him what led him to believe he was about to be terminated, and he suggested that the “energy” of his co-workers had changed. I asked him whether the previous director or others had been fired as well recently. He said no. Understanding that this is likely an issue with his worry, I explained that he does not have a crystal ball, and there was no way for him to know for sure if he was to be cut. I did remind him that, on average, well-producing employees who maintain good relationships are not terminated unless the company can no longer afford them. After considering these averages, his worries were under control.
- The fourth most important principle is to remind clients: “Don’t worry about the past.” As attorneys, we are regularly litigating the past. At intake, we discuss the past. When doing legal research, we must assess the past and how it applies to the more recent past. Even at trial, we argue facts about the past. The past is embedded in the profession, but the past is like a sharp knife: a good, but dangerous, tool. You may get clients who are focused on the indignity of the past. As Dale Carnegie put, “Very few of us are cruelly and greatly wronged. It is the small blows to our self-esteem, the indignities, the little jolts to our vanity, which cause half the heartache in the world,” (How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, p. 54). Reminding clients that their lives should not be dictated by slights in the past and helping clients understand that not worrying about petty indignities of the past can help clear their way toward achieving their goals.
- Finally, don’t forget to tell your clients to “Count your blessings—not your troubles.” Suggesting this strategy to clients is very powerful. You have heard the story from troubled clients: their parents, their children, their spouse, and their neighbors all hate them. They are destined to a life of darkness, and nothing will get better. Managing these clients can become difficult because no matter what, troubles rule their lives. This is not to suggest they have no troubles at all, but for some clients, if they had no troubles, they would have nothing. A golden rule to live by is to remind the clients to count their blessings and not their troubles. To avoid the appearance of antagonizing the client, I am just honest with the clients about how I used to worry, how worry is natural, how terrible their situation seems, and ask them to find whatever positives they can. For fired employees, I remind them that leaving a toxic workplace is good for their health. For businesses that are sued, I remind them settlements can be a part of doing business, and the financial losses can always be recovered. I have found many of the most worried clients do not consider that a silver lining exists—even in the bleakest scenarios. A reminder can jolt them toward positivity.
Consider how worry affects your life, and how you can apply these same principles. Dolan Williams is a solo attorney practicing in San Diego. He helps small businesses with their varied needs including landlord-tenant disputes, intellectual property, and employment law. Dolan has been a member of the State Bar of California since 2016 and is a proud graduate of Concord Law School at Purdue Global University.