Many paralegals work in practice areas where cases have deep personal importance to their clients. It is only fair that clients are emotional about their cases. However, emotional clients can complicate cases.
Without regulation, a client’s turmoil can lead to more work and increase the perceived difficulty for everyone, including the client. If you are not careful, clients’ stress and anxiety can also start to affect you. Even worse, some clients will try to take their frustration out on you.
Often, clients with out-of-control emotions directly impact work specific to paralegals. If a client is overwhelmed, they are unable to focus or act decisively. Often, they will become hostile toward the process and turn everything into an argument.
Despite these issues, many paralegal training programs seem to overlook important paralegal soft skills, like navigating the emotions of clients from personal injury to family law and everything in between.
Difficult interactions with emotional clients are a perennial complaint amongst paralegals. New paralegals often find themselves completely flustered when they come face to face with a client who is heartbroken or angry.
Of course, paralegals are not therapists. This article is not about solving all your clients’ emotional problems, because that is not your job. Rather, it will provide methods for managing emotions and keeping clients focused on the actual work their case requires.
By using the 9 strategies below you can build a secure relationship, prioritize working towards solutions, and set boundaries to manage client relationships successfully.
1. Focus on Facts
This is so simple it almost seems like it should not be a strategy. However, it is the first item on this list because it is essential.
Working with clients to parse out the facts about their case is a fundamental function of paralegals. Sometimes, emotional clients will make this difficult to remember. If you don’t focus on facts, you will easily get bogged down by clients’ emotions.
Sticking to fact-based statements when you are working with an emotional client is going to provide a script to make the interaction easier. If a client is in crisis, asking them to provide facts and details helps to activate the part of their brain that thinks about things logically. It encourages them to think objectively and get on track faster.
In all interactions with emotional clients, your goal should be to use the below strategies to help your clients refocus so they can pause worrying about their case and start working on it.
2. Respect the Client Experience
For many clients, the experience of a case is extremely emotional. Often, they have sought the services of an attorney because they are in crisis. It is not dramatic to say their cases can sometimes involve the worst thing that has ever happened to them.
Clients are already anxious about their case and the direct impact it has on their life. They are on the defensive and primed to see problems. If they think you don’t care, they will become even more worried and can even get angry.
Clients need to know you understand how they feel. They need someone sincere who listens to them and does what they say they are going to do. Being receptive and reliable will make clients feel secure about their case.
At the beginning of a case, be very responsive to their questions and go out of your way to make sure they feel informed and prepared. Let them know that you know this isn’t easy. Consistent communication serves as a lifeline for anxious clients.
If you have a particularly anxious client, assign them actionable tasks whenever possible. When clients have something to do, even a simple task, it gives them a sense of agency. Finishing tasks reinforces the idea that their case is moving forward.
3. Prevent Frustration with the Process
The responsibility to reassure clients and guide them through the process does primarily rest with the attorney. As a paralegal, you support this by doing things such as reiterating information to clients or being a point of contact to make them feel seen and heard when the attorney is unavailable.
If you don’t establish your work with clients as a solution to their problem, it is a risk that they could start viewing you as just an extension of that problem. A lot of crises caused by clients feeling frustrated and anxious can be avoided if they are familiarized with the process.
Make sure they have an overview of their case. Always outline how a specific task they need to complete progresses their case to the next phase. Giving them an endgame energizes them and motivates them to keep working. Similarly, if you tell them they need to complete a task, there will often be pushback because it seems unnecessary. if you give them the answer to “why?” clients usually become more willing to complete the task.
4. Maintain Relationships with Proven Tools
Strong interpersonal skills provide a good defense when it comes to clients prone to emotional outbursts.
If you look on the internet you will find a wealth of information from experts on managing interpersonal relationships in the workplace. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a few key concepts paralegals should be familiar with are:
- active listening
- reacting without bias
- making people feel validated
- building trust
- tactics for de-escalation
The above tactics form a solid foundation for managing client relationships as a paralegal. The following strategies will help you tailor these skills to negotiate common situations client-facing paralegals experience.
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5. Proactive Empathy
Sometimes, casework with clients brings up something difficult for them to talk about or upsetting to revisit. You will want to empathize with them, and you absolutely should. However, it is important to empathize in a way that shifts focus from the problem to the solution.
You might be tempted to speak to the objective unpleasantness of the situation by saying something like “Oh God, that sounds awful.” This is not ideal.
If you respond by saying something that focuses on the negative feelings around the case, it is a prompt that invites admiring the problem. The client will double down on the negative or emotional thinking.
Instead, use proactive empathy. You will make a comment that validates the client’s negative experience but also prompts them to think about solutions.
Proactive empathy will sound like this: “I am so sorry this is happening to you. I can’t change what has happened, but I am glad you took steps to address it and we are here to help you.” With just a little encouragement, clients can set aside the emotional noise and give more energy to the task at hand. This expedites the process and improves their perception of the experience.
6. Emotional Clients Having a Breakdown Need Space
A client may start crying in your office if they become overwhelmed. If that happens, they need a break before they get back to work. Even if you don’t have much time, taking a pause usually saves more time in the long run.
You might be tempted to give a pep talk. Usually, you don’t know a client well enough to be able to say the right thing and it just comes out awkwardly. It is better to be supportive in a way that maintains professional boundaries and gives them space to process their feelings.
Don’t offer tissues or water, just move them to where the client can reach them. Let them know where the bathroom is and tell them they are welcome to step out if they need to.
If a client is saying something along the lines of “I can’t do this” they are panicking. You should be encouraging, but don’t try to address everything they are saying. They usually don’t fully mean it and will not be able to listen anyways.
Let them know you are going to take a five-minute break. You can either work on some typing that does not require their input or even leave your office for a few minutes to finish a task and give them some time alone.
If you keep cool and stay focused, it will help the client to put their game face on and get back to work
7. Don’t Play Games with Needy Clients
Some clients are going to call and e-mail with concerns so often that it will interfere with your other work. They will call repeatedly about the same thing or call about things outside of what the court can address.
No matter what, they will keep trying to project their anxiety and frustration onto you. These clients will never understand that you are not their therapist. All you can do is try to limit the interruptions they cause.
Provide updates so they feel in the loop. In most cases, it is not justifiable to bill just to tell someone there is no news. However, with needy clients, sending a brief status update on your own time is less disruptive than being interrupted by a phone call. Often, this reduces the frequency of interruptions and helps the client to be less confrontational when they do contact you.
If nothing else has worked, politely inform them that they are wasting their money.
A good way to say this is “I understand your anxiety, but each time we speak, I have to bill for giving the same information. I respect your time and do not want to charge you unnecessarily. I promise you will receive an update as soon as we have one.” Be firm about your unwillingness to waste their time. Sometimes they will get the hint and become more respectful of yours.
8. Shut Down Tantrums
When a client is angry and lashing out, keep cool. You should never “fight back” during a tantrum. Engaging will escalate the problem and could get you in trouble. You never need to take something an angry client says personally.
If they are ranting, interrupt them with questions. Use your questions to direct the conversation to the key issue and find out what the client needs to be happy.
Even angry clients should be held to professional standards. It is never acceptable for clients to raise their voices or curse at you. You are completely within your rights to (politely) tell a client that if they do not stop cursing or yelling, you will end the conversation.
Always communicate bad interactions to your attorney or supervisor so they know your side of the story. A supportive workplace will not hold you responsible for a clients’ unreasonable actions. You deserve to work for a firm that does not tolerate abusive clients.
9. Take Care of Yourself
You will only be able to handle emotional clients if you have maintained your emotional security.
New paralegals commonly ask: “Will I just get used to seeing distressed clients have terrible experiences?” The answer is that you won’t. You might become desensitized, but that would be a problem in and of itself. To avoid burnout, you need to do things to manage secondhand stress from cases.
You are responsible for setting your work-life boundaries. Have a defined workspace and work hours. Only use your energy to worry about cases within these parameters.
Develop a system for maintaining your mental health. Give time to the hobbies that make you feel enriched. If your work is taking away your peace of mind, please seek out the assistance of a mental health professional. Sometimes it is hard to remember, but you are helping clients to get through what they are facing in a big way. It is important to give yourself credit for the work that you do.
Clients are always going to be under a lot of stress. If you build strong relationships and strategically manage crises, you will be able to keep clients on track and reduce the overall anxiety a case causes them. You must set strong boundaries when it comes to protecting your right to an abuse-free workplace and your mental health.
Meet the Author
Savannah Fisher graduated from the University of South Carolina. In 2020, she obtained her paralegal studies certificate and began working as a family law paralegal. As a paralegal, she is most excited by the opportunities to collaborate with others to work on solving new challenges each day.