If you’re an attorney, you’ve dealt with stressed clients. Most people seek out attorneys because of a traumatic or stressful event. Litigation itself is confrontational and stressful. You won’t be able to accomplish much with a distraught client and an emotional client will probably not “think straight” when it comes to deciding what to do about a case.
Assuming the client hasn’t reached the point where the services of a mental health professional are needed, how should an attorney calm a client down?
Various professionals addressed the issue “How Do You Counsel a Distraught Client?” in the blog Law is Cool (“the law school blog and podcast from Canada”). An interpreter, who works with attorneys and doctors, had this observation,
“In the course of my work I have often been struck by how similar some situations are for both lawyers and doctors in dealing with distraught clients/patients. I understand for the medical profession it forms part of their training; I do not know if legal professional training involves this scenario or not, but I can say that the best lawyers I have worked with deal with this in the same manner as the best doctors – with a calm and detached sympathy that conveys a ‘professionalism’ which is far more reassuring to a person in distress who comes to them for help, than demonstrations of sympathy on a personal level.”
If your client’s voice is rising, and is physically reacting to stress, you should go to the opposite end of the spectrum. Lower your voice, remain calm and try to learn the cause of the stress. Your client may be upset because of fear of the unkown and acting up out of ignorance of certain facts about the case or the litigation process. Educate the client to try to put those fears to rest. Come up with a game plan of possible actions so your client has the best chance of avoiding the worst case scenario.
One method clients may use to deal with stress is try to reshape the situation emotionally, which is referred to as cognitive reappraisal. An example would be a student doing poorly on a test, which could initially result in fear of bad grades and difficulty getting into college. The student might next look at the situation again and see it as only a single test and more studying will result in a higher grade the next time.
According to an article in the Science Daily website, this is a good coping mechanism if the person has no practical way to improve the situation (like a person with a terminally ill spouse) but bad if the person can take action to make the situation better (like an employee getting a bad performance evaluation). If the reshaping improves the situation such that the person feels it doesn’t need to be addressed, the person may be less likely to act. You need to decrease the stress but still have the client motivated enough to make decisions about the case.
Relieving stress from a client can help the client make the right decisions and help you get work done. One thing that can remove stress from a client is to get off the litigation track and into mediation. It can be much less confrontational and relieves the stress of allowing one’s fate into the hands of a judge or jury. The parties have their fates in their own hands at a mediation. You can also be guided by my friendly, helpful hands, instead of a judge dressed in black with a gavel at the ready.