The Don’ts of Loss and Grief for Lawyers

I am the first to admit that I am not a psychologist or grief counselor, thank God. The thing is, I can’t even begin to tell you how often lawyers like me deal with grieving clients. Sometimes it’s every single day. It’s a huge emotional load that you can’t just shrug off. Although it’s really bad news for the clients, it’s also a knife that can cut both ways. I don’t want to use this post to talk about stress and how it drives lawyers to drinking. What I do want to talk about is the near complete lack of ability for lawyers to relate to people suffering through really bad stuff and give a few pointed pointers to the new associates. You’re going to have to put up with a post without any pictures because this stuff is too serious.

We don’t cover this kind of thing even once in law school. I never heard anyone tell me how to deal with somebody falling apart in the conference room. Nobody prepared me for the effect of telling someone their loved one just died and showing them the paperwork and pictures related to it. There are all kinds of situations where what a lawyer is telling them hits right where it hurts. If it’s hard for you to understand what I’m saying, just think about something that would knock the breath out of your loved ones and imagine telling them about it in my conference room. A serious blow like that can really bring people to their knees. I’ve seen it actually rip lives apart.

I’ve seen all kinds of lawyers screwing up when they have to convey really bad news and deal with grieving clients. Doctors deal with death and dying a lot more often than lawyers so they have a lot of grief training and support in place to prepare them. Very few law firms have a chaplain on staff. I wish the legal profession would take it just as seriously. We talk about civility and professionalism all the time but shouldn’t a healthy dose of compassion training go along too?

If I have to step in and take over a client meeting for another jerk of a new associate with horrendous bed side manners I’ll go nuts. Because my doctor says this kind of stress is literally killing me, I’m going to summarize a few basic rules I’ve come up with as guidance for lawyers delivering bad news and helping grieving clients.

Don’t say something dumb like “time will heal all wounds.”

Clients know that this is a huge deal in their lives and that the event has to be dealt with now. You undoubtedly have a good legal plan and they’re going to rely on you, but they need to work through the emotions. When you tell them “time will heal all wounds” you are telling them to suppress how they are feeling rather than processing it and dealing with it appropriately. You don’t want them to bottle it up so it festers and gets worse. They need to address it, work it out the best they can, and adjust their lives so that they are capable of dealing with the legal ramifications.

The saying  “time will heal all wounds” is a trite bumper sticker slogan for dummies. Clients can smell a worn out cliché from an uncaring jerk a mile away. They come to us for intelligent legal advice and serious help, not a put off. If you can’t come up with something meaningful to say, go get a real lawyer to deal with them.

Don’t play down their bad news by saying “It could be worse.”

I cannot stand hearing a new associate say this. The clients already know it could be worse. But just because the news could be worse doesn’t mean what really happened isn’t a life changing event to them. They don’t want to deal with a lawyer who thinks their bad news isn’t a big deal because it could have been worse. You as the lawyer have to focus on their serious situation, their real pain, and the reality of what is actually going on instead of some flip fantasy about how things aren’t really that bad.

Don’t compare their loss or bad news to someone else’s.

They don’t care about someone else. Maybe you do, but they don’t care about you, either. They care about their own serious problem that’s causing them so much pain. You as their paid attorney and legal counsel are there to care about their problem too. When you start talking about someone else’s bad news you are trying to distract them from their own grief. It’s not going to work. All it’s going to do is make them think you aren’t completely focused on them. And by God if you try to compare their problem to some celebrity’s screw-up again I’m going to drag you out back for another one of my patented personal education lessons.

Closely related: Don’t tell them about your own loss.

When you tell them that you have also experienced the same kind of pain you think you are bonding to them and sharing tough times or whatever. They don’t see it that way. They want a professional lawyer who is detached and rational to deal with things while they are in the depths of despair. They don’t want their lawyer to be down there crying and wallowing in pity with them. They especially don’t want their lawyer to try to deal with their pain the same way the lawyer dealt with their own pain or for their lawyer’s judgment to be clouded because of their personal experiences with the same kind of grief. Their drinking buddies and old friends are there for pity parties. You are supposed to be a professional who knows how to deal with problems. Yes I know I’ve already told you to show compassion and be there with them but don’t go overboard. Keep your professional distance.

Don’t give them dumb pep talks or lecture them to pull themselves together.

You just gave them really bad news. Grief is not something people just snap out of. You are not working in a fake law firm on some stupid TV show where the clients are zany people  you can zing with a one-liner. Real clients need time to process the information and deal with fitting the bad news into their new lives. This process can take weeks or months. They need compassion and patience from you, not some uncaring “pull yourself together” kind of lecture. Also, a few snappy tricks for dealing with grief like “every time you think about this, write it down and then burn the note” or some other kind of dumb thing is really stupid. Give them a referral to a real grief counselor or an actual trained psychologist. Be understanding and listen to them, don’t try to teach them cheap tricks to deal with their pain.

Don’t tell them to go find a replacement for their loss or move on.

They just lost a loved one or their business tanked or something. That kind of hole in their lives can’t be filled by finding a replacement or just moving on. You might be an emotionless empty-suit lawyer with a black soul, but they aren’t. The feelings they are experiencing are very real to them and take time to be dealt with. It is really insensitive to tell them to just go get a replacement. At some point in their lives they may be ready to move on, but right now they need you to help them deal with the legal ramifications of their loss. You do them no favors by brushing off their concerns.

One more tip before I end this list of “Don’ts” – don’t tell clients to go have a beer and drown their sorrows. They probably will and when they get arrested they’re going to blame you. I’m not going to post your bail. Or if they crashed the car they are going to say they were only drinking because you told them to. All it takes is one sympathetic jury and our liability insurance rates are going through the roof for the next twenty years. You won’t be around to worry about it but we will.

-Samuel Owen

© Samuel Owen 2012. All rights reserved. Please read important notices and disclaimers by clicking here.

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