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Effective Client Management: Do You Have To Become Your Clients' Therapist?

As I travel around the country teaching family lawyers how to manage the emotionality of their clients, I occasionally hear some resistance to the idea, often phrased something like, "But I don't have time to be a therapist to my clients." I find this a very reasonable objection. Not only do you not have time, you don't have five to seven years of doctoral training in psychology, and you already have a job! But sometimes a little knowledge actually is a good thing.

With a day's worth of training or some professional case consultation, lawyers can learn quickly what client baggage will likely get in the way, and know how to minimize its effects. Rather than competing with the legal work, these skills facilitate it.

The things that the lawyer needs to know fall into a few categories. First is some knowledge about what's normal in a client's reactions versus what should be of concern. Knowing a little about the emotional stages of divorce and how clients' feelings and reactions interact with the legal process is a solid beginning. Those interactions often occur at important junctures such as the issuance of temporary orders when the narcissistic injury of having a stranger (the judge) decide what to do with the client's children and property brings rage, or an initial four-way meeting when seeing the spouse leaves the client unable to participate.

Knowing how to structure the working relationship according to client type goes a long way toward forestalling emotional train wrecks. For instance, whether you sit behind your desk during client meetings or in a more open seating arrangement helps to define the relationship. (Hint: The more problematic a client seems likely to be, the more structure you need). The ways you have your office staff interact with the client can similarly be part of a client management strategy. How you word your questions to a client can either invite open-ended responses or lead the client toward contained answers that keep the conversation goal-directed. In these simple ways, lawyers can planfully build client relationships that are focused and less tempestuous.

But most divorces where there is conflict around custody or assets will kick up at least some psychological complications. Again the lawyer who is prepared will have at his or her disposal a handful of strategies and techniques for keeping it contained. For example, there are a few guidelines for giving advice or information that will increase the client's capacity to take it in. These include giving it repeatedly, over-clarifying, knowing when the client is in a position to hear clearly, and providing it in multiple forms.

Knowing how to set limits that keep the client from calling at all hours, how to gently confront untoward reactions, or what homework assignments will help keep the client focused are examples of having enough knowledge and techniques to help the client and yourself stay on task while saving wear and tear on their psyche and yours.

So how much training does a lawyer need in order to do these things? As you can probably anticipate from the last sentence of the previous paragraph, the answer is, "just enough." Lawyers can accomplish it in a couple of ways.

Using a consultant around the stuck client or impasses in cases is one method. The consultant can offer the lawyer information about why the difficulty exists, suggestions for resolving it, and help the lawyer to implement the recommendations. After a few of these most lawyers become more proficient themselves in applying this knowledge.

The other approach is a brief training in those areas described earlier. A day or so, even less when less time is available, is usually sufficient. Some lawyers include paraprofessionals and office staff in this training in addition to the lawyers in the practice. Doing this more inclusive training produces a "state-of-the-art" office, capable of responding effectively to a wide range of client demands and needs.

Aside from the benefits that such tools bring to lawyers, these methods contribute to reform of the legal divorce process to make it less damaging. While therapist intervention is helpful, it deals with crises after the fact and too far removed from the actual legal events. To the extent that "front-line" professionals (lawyers, judges, family service officers) can help clients negotiate the process even a little more thoughtfully, there are gains to be had for clients, their children, and the whole system.

If you think about experiences you have had taking clients into the courthouse or into four-way meetings, about clients who became obstacles to settling their cases, or about the complaints about your bills and services when they were very reasonable, it is easy to see how knowing the emotional map can be a huge advantage. And no…you don't have to be anyone's therapist.

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