How to Deal with an Emotional Client

Emotional clients can be one of the most difficult components of the practice of law, especially for young lawyers who are already working hard to build their skills and reputation within the legal community. However, there are things you can do to work well with emotional clients so that you can move your cases forward to help clients achieve their goals.

Prepare the Client for the Inner Workings of an Attorney-Client Relationship Before Accepting Representation

Many clients have never utilized the services of an attorney and may be confused as to how they should communicate with you. Set boundaries early on with regard to fees and advise clients of your typical work schedule. For example, I tell clients that I am in court most days of the week from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. so afternoons are best if they want to chat about their case without playing phone tag. Some clients prefer to communicate via email but be sure clients know if you will be billing them for each email and that they should stay on the same email chain as opposed to sending a separate email each time they want to contact you.

Thoroughly Explain Case Procedures and Timelines at the Start of Representation

Clients need to know how long they can expect for their case to reasonably reach a resolution. Be sure to identify factors that will assist in speeding processes up and potential road blocks that will slow down the case. This way, you will be able to gauge whether the client wants a swift resolution or expects a more drawn-out process. For example, if opposing counsel or another party is the cause of any delay, make sure the client knows this is the case and help allay his or her concern. Help the client understand that you think the case is important. If the client has a better understanding of how long a case usually takes, this can also alleviate some stress.

Set Realistic Expectations for the Client Up Front

Clients want to know what the outcome of their case will be immediately, often times long before you will have all the information to make this assessment. Make sure the client knows what to expect from your representation. For example, if your client is alleged to have stolen multiple times on camera and given a full recorded confession to police, you should say that an outright dismissal of all criminal charges is not likely. Emotional clients need realistic expectations from the beginning of your representation as you want them to feel confident in your services but also know what is and is not a probable case outcome.

Set Aside Enough Time to Meet with the Client

Emotional clients require extra care and attention. These types of clients cannot be squeezed into the 30 minutes you have allotted to return phone calls at the end of the day before heading home. Make sure you build the appropriate amount of time into your schedule, and this amount will vary between clients. In addition to ensuring that you thoroughly explain the relevant legal concepts to clients and answer questions, it is always helpful to follow up with a written summary so that the client can refer to the answers later.

Keep the Client Well-Informed About Progress of the Case

No client ever complains that his or her lawyer has kept them too informed. I make it a point to send each client a copy of every document I file with the court or send to opposing counsel. I also send periodic requests for clients to check in with my office if they have not had contact in a while. This also serves as a good written record for your files and a little extra assurance for an emotional client.

Suggest Counseling or Mental-Health Treatment When Necessary

If you believe the client may have an undiagnosed mental disorder or just need to talk to a mental-health professional, it is often helpful to make this suggestion to your emotional clients in a confidential and sensitive way. For example, you can keep business cards for counselors and psychologists in your lobby or waiting area.

Conclude Representation in a Clear Manner with Appropriate Documentation

When your representation is over or when the client’s case has concluded, make sure the client knows that your attorney-client relationship is also over. Always answer any questions the client may have and provide advice on any next steps. Emotional clients sometimes mistake the attorney-client relationship as a friendship, and clear boundaries are very important. Summarize the legal proceedings in written form and wish them luck in the future before terminating representation on the matter.

About the Author

Jamilah LeCruise manages her own practice in Norfolk where she focuses on criminal defense and divorce matters. She is a graduate of the William & Mary School of Law and is the 2020 Virginia State Bar Young Lawyer of the Year. She can be reached at (757) 627-5215.