They want deal documents drafted in less than 24 hours. They want the answer to that complex tax issue now. They want to close the deal next week. Plus, they want a discount. And, oh, if there's a snag anytime, it will be your fault and there will be hell to pay.
In the power dynamics of client/lawyer relationship, lawyers are almost always the oppressed. What lawyer doesn't have stories of clients who throw their weight around?
They're like abusive boyfriends—needy, threatening, and sometimes scary. And you will do most anything to keep them, because what will become of you otherwise?
Law firms have toxic cultures, writes Mark Goulston, a business psychiatrist, in the Harvard Business Review blog because of clients' demanding behavior:
When they are not able to push back on or fire these clients, partners will often take it out by “kicking the dog” in the form of yelling at their associates or staff. I’ve even seen some turn to drugs, alcohol and a variety of unhealthy habits to redirect their frustration. The fact is that as much as there are some clients that law firms would do well to turn away or fire, they won’t. They’re just too profitable.
So how should you handle the nasty client? When a client is abusive, Goulston says you should look at him in the left eye ("which is attached to their right emotional brain"), pause, then say one of the following:
- “Say that again?”
- “Do you really believe what you just said?”
- “Huh?” (as in, “Excuse me”)
- “What was that all about?”
- “Excuse me, I apologize, but my mind wandered over the past few minutes, can you please repeat what you just said?”
Goulston also advises that you should discuss with your volatile client beforehand the best way to convey bad news: "Going forward, in the event I have to tell you about a bump and obstacle or setback, what is the best way to tell you?"
Interesting ideas, but will they work? I agree with Goulston that you should appear calm (remember, you're the lawyer—the rational one), but would saying something like "Huh?" or "Do you believe what you just said?" cause an unreasonable client to stop, reflect, and behave reasonably? Let's just say I'm doubtful. If anything, those remarks might inflame the guy further.
Wouldn't it be better to just tell the guy his remarks were unfair and unwarranted? And while you're at it, why not tell the schmuck that he hurt your feelings? Isn't being straightforward without sounding sarcastic and patronizing a wiser approach?
But perhaps the most prudent course of all is just to suck it up—and do what others have always done: Take it out on a poor underling, your family, or your dog.
What's your view?
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