Clients are bullying lawyers, consultant says; would these comebacks turn the tables?

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Law firms can be toxic places to work, and the reason often is the tone set by angry and entitled clients, according to a business psychiatrist and consultant.

Writing at the HBR Blog Network earlier this year, psychiatrist Mark Goulston says he sees an increasing amount of toxicity in law firms. The problem can often be traced to clients who set the tone, he says. Partners who are unable to push back or fire a profitable client, he says, “will often take it out by ‘kicking the dog’ in the form of yelling at their associates or staff. I’ve even seen some turn to drugs, alcohol and a variety of unhealthy habits to redirect their frustration.” The Careerist notes Goulston’s observations and his advice.

Goulston says lawyers hit with a client’s “knock-out punch insult” should remain calm, pause, and then choose one of these replies:

• Say that again?

• Do you really believe what you just said?

• Huh?

• What was that all about?

• Excuse me, I apologize, but my mind wandered over the past few minutes, can you please repeat what you just said?

Another approach, he says, is to prepare difficult clients for future bad news by asking in advance the best way to deliver the information. The lawyer might say that some clients prefer conversations to email, some don’t want to hear bad news on a Friday, or some want to focus on solutions and options. When the client answers, the lawyer should repeat the response. Then the lawyer should remind the client of the conversation when there is bad news.

The Careerist blog takes issue with some of the comebacks. Remaining calm is a good idea, but the comeback remarks could “inflame the guy further,” the Careerist says. Maybe it’s better to say nothing, the blog says.

Another approach might be for the lawyer to tell the client his remarks were unfair and unwarranted, the blog says. “Isn’t being straightforward without sounding sarcastic and patronizing a wiser approach?” the Careerist asks.

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