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After the Bar

Practice Management

Tips for New Lawyers on How to Give Clients Bad News

Samuel James Laffey


  • Clients will always appreciate you when they hear bad news from you first.
  • Always give the client a chance to ask questions after bad news.
  • Before giving bad news, make sure you know your client’s options.
Tips for New Lawyers on How to Give Clients Bad News
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No one wants to hear bad news, including me. I don’t want to hear that the Red Sox lost (seriously, what do they spend their money on?), that my client’s motion in limine was rejected, or that my favorite coffee shop ran out of those mouthwatering chocolate-chip cookies I adore.

The fact is that most of us lawyers have steady employment and incomes because other people receive bad news. Spouses are always telling each other that their marriage is over, people’s relatives are being charged with crimes daily, business partners are having disputes about profits and capital allocations, next-door neighbors are poisoning trees because their views are impaired, and employees are regularly getting pink slips from employers for crazy and often illegal reasons.

Bad news (and bad decisions) is the bread and butter of the legal world. But giving bad news? That’s not something every lawyer knows how to handle.

Expect a Bad Response to Bad News

An important skill for every lawyer is giving a client bad news. I work in the juvenile field representing parents, Indian custodians, guardians, and minor children who have found themselves ensnared in Alaska’s child protection system. My job involves giving my clients bad news on a regular basis.

Normally, the bad news I give can fall into one of the following three categories.

  1. The state wants to alter your legal rights to your child, typically terminating their rights altogether.
  2. Your child wants to do something (and you will disagree with your child).
  3. The state denied a request you made related to your children.

As you can imagine, this type of bad news is rarely well-received by clients. It’s probably a little obvious to say this, but you should know that when you give bad news to a client, the client will probably take it badly.

A Good Way to Give Bad News

The strategy I believe to be most effective and helpful for clients when I’m giving bad news is to take the following steps.

Tell the Client Quickly

Tsarina Catherine the Great once said, “Bad news travels faster than good news.” Clients will always appreciate you when they hear bad news from you first. It’s much better than hearing the news from their soon-to-be ex-spouse or the in-law they can’t stand.

Give the Client the Bad News Straight Up

Recently, I had to tell a client that the state was filing a petition to terminate her parental rights. I told her within the first minute of our conversation and provided her with the petition I’d gotten from the state. The client took it as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Anything less than direct honesty tends to confuse my clients, so I don’t sugarcoat what I have to tell them.

Don’t Waste the Client’s Time

Clients recognize the value of time. All of my current clients are indigent, so I’m not billing them by the hour. But even when I’ve represented other types of clients, such as the Territory of American Samoa’s Office of Financial Instruments, they all appreciated effective time management. Give clients information and the details they need efficiently and carefully.

Always Give the Client a Chance to Ask Questions after Bad News

Sometimes, clients won’t have any questions right away. When that happens, I schedule a second meeting within 48 hours to allow the client to process the news a bit more and collect themselves. Some news requires that time for additional thought.

Be Ready with Options for the Client

Before you give bad news, make sure you know what your client’s options are. Learning specific details about their options tends to help clients recover and focus more quickly.

Having options and the possibility of choice provides clients with a light or a pathway out of the tunnel where they’ve found themselves. This is extremely important because, even if clients choose not to appeal adverse decisions, having options minimizes their exposure to the bad news and helps move them forward.

Delivering Bad News—More of an Art than a Science

Delivering bad news is more of an art than a science—and a client-specific one at that. Remember to be sensitive to your client’s needs and emotions; it’s never a time to show your aloofness or any sense of superiority. And make sure you do your best for your client no matter what.