Managing Relationships Means Reading People

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The law is ultimately a people business. Lawyers deal every day with people's very lives and should strive to communicate honestly and directly about the difficulties involved while maintaining respect for those with whom we deal.

That's easier said than done when clients who are involved in stressful and emotional problems (from divorce or personal injury to closing a big deal) expect their lawyer to provide all the answers. The fact is that we cannot always do it, and conveying that to clients is often difficult.

There are ways to manage these interpersonal issues. Make sure clients understand that they're entering a two-way relationship. The attorney agrees to perform to the best of his ability in accord with professional standards, and the client agrees to communicate and cooperate fully.

Often, it's clear at the start of an engagement that that will be difficult or impossible, particularly when clients:

  • insist that their matter is "life and death" — such clients often will be future sources of last-minute emergencies that at best are irritating and at worst can result in errors under pressure;

  • use pressure tactics to urge that their matter be handled first once the engagement begins;

  • demonstrate a bad attitude toward lawyers and the judicial system, or suggest that they know better than the attorney what needs to be done; and/or

  • cannot articulate what they want you to achieve.

Recognizing those danger signs enables you to avoid clients who make unrealistic demands, express irritation with delay, chronically complain about everything, demand constant or instant attention, or expect unrealistic or abnormal hand-holding. Rejecting such clients before representation will minimize aggravation and stress — as well as possible malpractice claims.

In a larger sense, such relationship management tactics also have a place in a lawyer's day-to-day personal interactions. The adversarial nature of lawyers' training risks creating a win-lose mentality when dealing with others. As an antidote, consider these ideas for better managing stress in your interpersonal relationships:

  • Avoid conversations with people you want to avoid. Steer clear of the ones who will naturally pull you in. Plan your polite, yet to the point, conversation stoppers.

  • Practice some stock one-liners to deflect the negative comments you'd like to avoid. Include, "Perhaps you're right," "That's an interesting opinion," "I'll think about that perspective" or "I need to wait on this until I have more information."

  • Excuse yourself if you find yourself biting your tongue. People frequently stay too long in a place where conflict is likely to occur. Just leave and go for a walk.

  • Avoid the 3 Cs: Criticism, complaints and condemnation. Don't fight every fight. Don't aim to win every argument.

  • Use compassion, humor and graciousness to look the other way when you hear a negative comment or give someone the benefit of the doubt and hope they do the same for you.

Above all, listen. We often increase conflict by talking excessively and restating our positions. Stop and really listen to the other person. That, after all, should be a lawyer's most fundamental skill.

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