How lawyers should treat grieving people

Lest you start to think being a lawyer turned me into an angry kind of guy, I want to show you my kinder, gentler side. It still exists, I swear. It’s really small and hidden in the back behind piles of stuff, but it’s there.

Now I know I already gave you my standard speech on what to not do when dealing with really bad news and clients who take it hard. This time I want to give my basic talk about the things I’ve learned that a good lawyer should do to help. I’ve already explained that I’m not a grief counselor or psychologist but if you’re a practicing lawyer please take a moment and read my short list. It’s adapted from a talk I’ve given to newbies many times:

Be an active listener and be ready to respond on their terms.

Grief is a real psychological, social, and physical reaction to bad news and a serious loss. Every client experiences it differently and at different times. Their reactions will be all over the board, so you as the professional attorney must be tuned in to what you are saying and how they are reacting. Be an active listener instead of your typical stiff lawyer in the dark suit. Think a little bit about what you are going to say before you tell someone really bad news. Consider how they are going to react and come up with a plan. Have one or two of the legal assistants get prepped and be ready to lend a hand. Think of ways to do it a little better and constantly adjust what you are doing based on their feedback. Don’t just plough through to get it over with. Be mature about this and help these people.

You’re probably only going to bill for a few minutes of this hour-long task. We might even cut the entire bill. It shouldn’t go longer than an hour or two but be prepared to stay until it’s done. It doesn’t matter, though, for two reasons. First, they are going to appreciate your human side and will be thankful for your help. That’s good for keeping clients. Second, rough news sometimes sends these people over the edge. Occasionally you as the lawyer have to be ready with a referral to a trauma counselor or know how to call their family to come pick them up. The last thing the firm needs is a lawsuit from their next-of-kin because you were a boneheaded idiot and the client did something bad when they got home.

Be professional and patient.

Try to buy tissues in those huge packages from the wholesale stores. They’re cheaper by the pallet and that way you only have to go to the store once a month.

Don’t just jump up and bolt out of there when you’re done like you’re so clearly relieved to be finished telling them the bad news. Be ready to sit there with them and hold their hand if it would help. Keep handing them Kleenex. Don’t pass judgment, either. Be careful because they hear your words just as loudly as they hear your body language. Concentrate on a professional, lawyerly sense of engagement with them in their personal grief process.

I know I’m starting to sound like some kind of touchy-feely psychologist or something, but you really have to put some thought into relating to clients as human beings. Give them time to process the information and be there to help them think through the ways of dealing with it. I don’t want to sound crass, but our job is to be paid to provide legal advice and services and they need it more than ever when they hear your bad news. If you are really there for them during their dark hour, they will rely on you and form a tight bond with our law firm. Why would you want to just dump bad news on them and walk away when they most needed you?

Acknowledge their loss.

Don’t be an idiot and try to minimize it or laugh it away. You may be the type to just “walk it off” to use a dumb sports metaphor, but they probably won’t be. You may be a thoughtless dry lawyer without a soul who can view it as nothing, but it’s not. It is something. In fact, it’s dead damn serious to them, no pun intended. I know that if you wanted to deal with people you would have gone into sales or marketing instead of putting up with law school. But try to inject some humanity into the way you deal with these people. If I have to deal with them crying and screaming in my office for an hour about your stupid sense of humor one more time I will retire early so that you have to deal with them on your own. I absolutely guarantee you won’t like it. Pay attention to how they are reacting and respond like a mature, professional attorney.

As best as you can, be straight and rational with them and offer truly heartfelt condolences as appropriate under the circumstances. We’re trusting you a little bit here to figure out what is appropriate but you know your job is on the line. You may have to try really hard to be a mature adult about their situation, but you can do it if you really try. Oh, and one last thing – please don’t say something meaningless like “Time heals all wounds.” They are human beings experiencing severe psychological trauma. Your condolences are things they remember and they are important to them because you are their lawyer. They look up to you, even when I don’t. Don’t make them look down at you because you’re a jerk – and by extension, the firm.

Offer to help. And then actually do it.

Let them know in clear terms that you’re there for them. Don’t go too far and offer to do basic stuff for them or cross the line into personal tasks. You have to maintain your professional distance. But let them know you are there to help. Lawyers can bill out for all kinds of stuff that don’t involve going to court or suing somebody. You’re not taking advantage of them by offering to handle coordination of things that have to get done now and be done right. They need someone they can rely on to do things and you are right there to do it. Yes the firm is getting paid, but you are taking a huge amount of stress off their shoulders and making a real, productive difference during this dark hour of their life. I don’t want to put you out, but could you possibly check in with them and their family a lot and keep walking them through important things you could do for them?

Give them tons of support and work with their family.

If they ever needed you at all, which I often doubt, now is when they need you the most. It’s time for you to earn your pay and swing into action for them. Call their family, arrange a meeting right now, and be ready with a really good plan to handle things over the next couple of days. Clear your schedule in the afternoons to designate time for follow-up meetings. Do you think you could actually call ahead and drive to their home to deliver their mail from us and important legal documents? It will save them the hassle of remembering to drive in to sign stuff when there are more important things to deal with. You’re not going to bill for it but they, and by extension, their friends, families, co-workers, and their closest 300 Facebook friends are going to appreciate your professionalism and assistance. Do whatever you can to keep those doors open, my friend. That’s how you get to be known as a really good lawyer.

Little tip here: Keep the cute tissues box at home. They are not appropriate at work. Clients will throw them at you.

This is not the complete list of things to do to help scared, grieving clients but I think it gives you a pretty good feel. Before I’m done here, I have a question for you: Have you taken the time yet to have your legal secretary call around and come up with a list of local counselors, treatment centers, doctors who specialize in grieving, trauma therapists, etc.? Why not? Besides having some really good resources ready when you need them, don’t you think those other professionals would like to know the name of a good lawyer to refer all their patients to?

-Samuel Owen

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

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