Empower Legal Blog
Attorneys Can Reduce Client Anxiety, In an Age of Anxiety
There’s little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has induced anxiety in nearly every American. Whether we’re a patient with the virus, a businessowner whose operations have been forced to shut down, or an employee or has been laid off or furloughed, our individual and collective world view is markedly different than it was only weeks ago.
All of which got me thinking about clients who are involved in litigation and the considerable anxiety they felt long before the word “coronavirus” became part of our lexicon.
As lawyers we fancy ourselves as helping professionals. We like to think that we’re constantly holding our clients’ proverbial hands, all the while comforting, reassuring, and of course letting them know that we are their fearless, tireless advocates.
But a recent exchange with a client concerning a mediation brought to light what I will call the “perception gap” between our assessment of the client’s anxiety level, and their own—and far more important—self-assessment.
The client is a party to a proceeding in which he has sought the partition of property he co-owns with his former wife’s father. They both live on the property, the client in the main house and the former father-in-law in an (appropriately named) in-law unit atop a garage that, thankfully, is separate from the main house. The parties had agreed to mediate the case, and the mediation—which had to be done remotely based on COVID-19 — was scheduled. But on a regularly scheduled conference the day prior to the mediation, the mediator informed counsel that he needed to postpone the session for one week.
The reasons advanced by the mediator for the postponement—the need to ensure security for videoconference connections and his desire to review the case law cited by counsel in their mediation briefs—were both valid and understandable. But from the client’s standpoint, they were of little consolation. The mediation, he said, was something he was looking forward to and for which he had prepared emotionally; a postponement of a week would merely prolong his angst about the case in general and the mediation in particular.
My client’s reaction was a true epiphany for me; it caused me to dramatically rethink the impact on clients of events that we might think to be relatively trifling. I could only think of how my wife—who went through chemotherapy for lymphoma 15 years ago—would have felt if her oncologist had similarly postponed an appointment.
Are We Fulfilling Our Role as a “Counselor”?
Our client contact tends to be of three varieties: information gathering, explanations of law and procedure, and preparation of the client for litigation events. We take seriously our obligation to keep clients reasonably informed, to zealously advance their interests, and to place them in a position to achieve the best result. But along the way it can be easy to forget that the term “counselor” suggests an obligation far greater than mere advice.
The stress that many clients feel when they are on their litigation “journey” can be almost indescribable. I regularly hear stories of depression, sleeplessness, nightmares, nausea, irritability, domestic discord and other maladies and conditions.
To be sure, the medical and pharma communities can remedy—or least dull the impact of—many of these conditions. But that doesn’t abrogate our obligation to ensure, as best we can, the client’s well-being amid the tumult of litigation.
What Actions Can We as Attorneys Take to Help a Client’s Emotional State and Relieve Anxiety?
There are many steps we can take outside the box as a profession to fortify the client during our representation. Here’s a sampling:
- Every client conversation should be punctuated with something more than “How are you?” The inquiry should be focused and heartfelt. In other words, “How are you really doing? Is there anything I can do help ease your anxiety?” The client may or may not respond fully and genuinely but the question must nonetheless be asked.
- If you sense that the client is emotionally needy, don’t be bashful about inquiring as to whether they’ve taken advantage of mental health resources. And if you know of trusted resources, whether they be psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychopharmacologists or nutritionists, refer the client appropriately.
- Communication can be the antidote for much of the client’s anxiety. The client should at all times know where their matter stands procedurally, and which events are likely to occur both in the long and short term. Fortunately, there any number of communication tools that are “client-facing”, thus reducing the need for clients to constantly provide status updates. Sharing Google Calendar with the client is a good start. A tool called MindMeister allows counsel to map out a litigation schedule and process on a “mind map” that can likewise be shared with clients. It goes without saying that cloud-based storage services such as Dropbox or OneDrive should be deployed to allow clients to access documents and correspondence on a 24/7 basis. And nearly all of the practice management systems—Clio, RocketMatter, Practice Panther and MyCase–have a client-facing side to them. ClioConnect allows counsel to share documents and files, tasks, bills, time entries and calendars.
- Finally, education can be a useful tool, not only in reducing anxiety but in reinforcing the idea that you have expertise in the area of litigation that’s the subject of the case. In this regard video preparation of clients for depositions, trials and mediations, through either DVDs viewed in the office or a streaming service, is both low-cost and effective in enhancing the prospects for good performance and results and increasing the client’s comfort level. Additionally, basic and understandable articles on the relevant law can be an important to supplement to your explanations of legal principles.