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LAWBIZ COACHES CORNER: Managing relationships means reading people

By Ed Poll

Ed Poll is a speaker, author and board-approved coach to the legal profession. He can be contacted at edpoll@lawbiz.com. Also visit his interactive community for lawyers at www.LawBizForum.com.

The law ultimately is a people business.

Lawyers every day deal with human lives in the practice of law and should strive to communicate honestly and directly about the difficulties involved while maintaining respect for those with whom we deal. That is 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 and make things right. The fact is that we cannot always do this, and conveying it 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 lawyer agrees to perform to the best of his or her ability in accord with professional standards, and the client agrees to communicate and cooperate fully. Often it is clear at the start of an engagement that will be difficult or impossible, when clients:

  • Insist that their matter is life and death; such clients will often 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 lawyer what needs to be done.
  • Cannot articulate what they want you to achieve.

Recognizing these danger signs enables you to avoid a client who has unrealistic expectations or demands, who will in the future express irritation with delay, who will chronically complain about everything, who will demand constant or instant attention, or who expects 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. Walk away, just leave, go for a walk.
  • Avoid the 3 C’s… Criticism, Complaints and Condemnation. Don’t fight every fight. Don’t 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. Often we increase conflict by talking and restating our positions. Stop and really listen to the other person. That, after all, should be a lawyer’s fundamental skill.

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