Somebody else's problems by Emma Sell, BDBF
This article was also featured as a column in the Februrary 2016 issue of LPM. To read the issue in full, download LPM.
We all know that ‘difficult’ clients are just part of working in professional services, but there are degrees of what constitutes difficult, and there are degrees to which employees (or partners) are equipped to deal with them.
Firms will have systems in place to deal with clients perceived as difficult because they are grumbling about fees or the quality of the work provided, but what about those clients who are difficult to deal with because they are suffering simply because of their situation? Firms that have many clients that are individuals often find themselves dealing with clients whose last resort is to instruct a lawyer, and will more than likely never have dealt with one before (aside from buying a property).
Our clients display varying states of emotion when they speak to us, from tears to anger and everything in between. Their first point of contact with the firm is our legal secretaries, who are exactly that: secretaries. They can empathise and sympathise with a client’s situation, but they are not trained to counsel them.
Employment law is one of the more ‘human’ areas of practice and clients can see their lawyer as their confidante, and therefore may expect some form of counselling in addition to legal advice. This is only natural, but our lawyers and secretaries are not qualified to provide this service, so might they be doing more harm than good? It may also affect your employees’ performance if they are distracted by the wellbeing of their client, rather than concentrating on the issues of the case. The client’s emotional stresses could even transfer to your people.
What’s the answer? Should firms take a party line on responses to clients in these situations, or should staff get psychological training?
Simply ignoring a client’s mental state may make them think you’re not engaged, and are therefore perhaps not the right lawyer for them. You may not even secure the client if they think a secretary doesn’t understand them.
Providing training for staff may therefore seem like the obvious answer, but aside from the associated cost, do we know if this is what they actually want? You would assume they are working in law because, well, that’s what they want to do – they may only have a passing interest in psychology. As managers, should we be diluting the skill set of our employees? And are we acting in the best interests of our clients by providing an additional service, to which we are, more than likely, not doing justice?
Perhaps there is a middle ground. We have relationships with psychological professionals and counsellors, and have communicated to our staff that, when they feel it is appropriate, they should explain to the client that they are straying from their area of expertise and refer them out. In instances where this has occurred, we have found that the client respects this position and is grateful for the honesty.
Our approach is to train staff to understand their limitations, and to give them the confidence to refer the client on to the right professional body without feeling they are letting the client or firm down. There will always be difficult clients, but once we can understand why they are difficult, we may realise that it is not always down to us to resolve it.