Breaking bad: relaying unfortunate results to clients
Unless you're Kevin Lomax in
'Devil's Advocate,' there is a strong likelihood that, at some
point, you will not receive the result that you and your client had
hoped for, at which point you'll have to be the bearer of some bad
news. But, even if that unfortunate event leads to a final,
negative determination in the case, you'll want to deliver bad news
in such a way that you can preserve the relationship with your
client, either for purposes of securing future work referrals, or
in order to maintain a good working relationship moving forward in
There are some general tips that you can utilize in relaying bad
news that, if they do not remove the sting, they will certainly
soften the blow, as follows:
- Be the first to deliver the news, so that your client isn't
blindsided, hearing from someone else, or through a court
- Tell the truth.
- Be clear and direct about what has happened. Don't sugarcoat
the situation, or leave the client with a potential
misunderstanding over what has actually happened, or about what
- Deliver the news in-person, or via telephone. Don't
- Put yourself in the client's shoes. Acknowledge their feelings.
Use verbal or physical communication cues to relay your
understanding that this is a difficult situation. Lower your voice.
Listen intently. Nod.
- After you relay the news, stop acting like a lawyer for a
second, and let your client take it all in, and vent, if necessary.
Remember that your client does not have the depth of knowledge of
legal situations that you do.
- Keep in mind, however, that different people react in different
ways. You may assume that a client will view a small reverse as a
major setback; but, that may not be the case. Don't let your
expectations psyche you out.
- At some point, you do need to take control of the situation,
and lay out a plan to manage the case moving forward, or to
conclude the representation, if the case is at an end. Whatever you
and the client agree to do as a plan for moving forward, make sure
to follow-through on it.
For further reading, take a look at this
review of the psychological aspects of relaying bad news to
clients, as collected by Niki
Black, for the MyCase
. . .
Keep in mind that you can work to control the client's reaction
to bad news by the way in which you lay the groundwork of the
representation. If you're transparent about the information you
process within a case . . . If you educate the client on different
outcomes to actions you will take . . . If you prepare the client
for various contingency plans based on certain results . . . If you
underpromise . . . If you stay on top of the case, and contact your
client with regular updates, not just when bad news comes in . . .
Then your client is more likely to understand that their claim is a
process, and that there are steps and choices to be made along the
way. An educated client, who understands that a legal case is often
a journey, with fits and starts, will be better prepared to take
bad news, and will have a better understanding of the larger
construct in which bad news is delivered.
The most successful baseball pitchers are able to succeed, in
large part, because their deliveries contain the minimum of effort,
and because they can repeat those deliveries consistently.
It is the same thing with the successful lawyer, who develops and
implements consistent client education strategies, such that effort
expended in delivering information respecting turnabouts can be
significantly reduced, when both attorney and client have a deeper
understanding about the process. Although it is impossible to
control results that are ultimately dependent on the reactions of
others, lawyers can exert a significant amount of control over
process, especially as relates to the management of the
. . .
Of course, if you've screwed up, then it's time to call your
Tip courtesy of Jared Correia, Law Office Management Assistance
Published June 20, 2013
To learn more about the Law Practice Management
Section, which is complimentary for all MBA members,
contact LPM Section Chair Thomas J. Barbar or Vice
Chair Cynthia E.