Lawyers like to say, “I’m a lawyer, not a psychiatrist.”
If you’re dealing with people’s problems, you’re a lawyer and a psychiatrist. While clients understand you are the person hired to try and resolve their legal issues, the not-so subtle secret of a successful practice is a slew of clients that believe their lawyer actually gives a crap about how their legal issues are affecting their personal life.
In small-firm practice, you’re dealing with someone who just got served, or is going through the anxiety of deciding whether to initiate litigation. Your client may be going through the stress of trying to buy a business, or asking you to split up his family. Someone is trying to get her spouse out of jail, while the person in jail is wondering about his future. The type of legal issues that we deal with in small law firms aren’t whether the corporation will have to pay a million dollar fine or whether the bank will have to write off a loan, they’re issues that cause people to lose sleep and sometimes just freak out.
And I know, I get the calls too. Clients want to talk about things that have nothing to do with the legal work I have to do. They ask the same questions that you can’t answer: “When will this be over?” or, “Do you think (this) will happen?” You’re tired of telling the client, “I don’t know, but just be patient.” The client calls and says he “read” this, or “heard” this,” or worse, “My friend had a case like this and…”
Sometimes I can’t make the time to address these questions or concerns, and sometimes I’m dismissive. It’s unavoidable. It’s the middle of the day, the call comes in, you’re busy, and playing psychiatrist isn’t possible.
I’ve learned that the client’s “feelings” and “thoughts” about the case or legal matter and how it’s affecting their life is required discussion. Yes, you were paid to do a job, you weren’t paid to hug your client or hold their hand, but that’s why it’s important for you to do just that — pay attention to the non-legal issues facing your client.
The best way to deal with this is to make the time for it. At the initial consultation, after you’ve laid out all the legal issues, ask the client, “So how is all of this affecting you?” They’ll talk about their spouse or their girlfriend, or their job, or recent stint in rehab. More importantly, you’ll establish that you’re concerned with the full picture of the legal matter — not just what pleadings you have to file or what arguments you need to make. You can’t control what happens in court or what the other side will do, but you can control how you relate to your client.
Make the time for it again. A few weeks into the attorney/client relationship, call the client in for a meeting to update them on the case and again ask a few personal questions. “How’s your family dealing with this? Everything going well at work?” And hey, you Starbucks-dwelling virtual lawyers, you can do this too, right? Just email your concerns, or better yet, Skype that concern right from your living room.
Initially some clients don’t feel comfortable with these types of questions. They came to you for a legal issue, not to discuss their personal life. I’ve gotten responses like, “Why are you asking me this?” Push. As time goes on, the relationship will become more natural and the client will begin to bring things up without you asking.
The attorney/client relationship goes beyond practicing law, and you need to let your clients know that you understand that legal issues are more than just going to court or signing documents. Clients expect you to do your job, not to give a crap about them.
So give a crap about them — them, not just their money or their legal issue.
Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.