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Practice Management

Self-Care Techniques and Tips for Dealing with Difficult Clients

Nicole Browning


  • It is important for lawyers to manage stress and self-care, especially when dealing with difficult clients. Stress can manifest differently for each person, but common signs include loss of interest, irritability, and concentration problems. 
  • When dealing with challenging clients, lawyers should prepare for conversations, avoid communication barriers, practice active listening, de-escalate tense situations, and be aware of their voice and body language. 
  • Self-care is essential for lawyers to maintain resilience in a high-stress profession, especially when facing difficult clients.
Self-Care Techniques and Tips for Dealing with Difficult Clients
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On top of the everyday stress associated with legal research, court deadlines, marketing, establishing a niche, and the other myriad tasks lawyers perform, dealing with difficult clients—clients facing increased stress themselves—can add significantly to the strain on a lawyer’s emotional well-being. Now is a great time for lawyers to think about stress, self-care, and how to survive and thrive in stressful situations like dealing with difficult clients.

Stress Identification and Self-Care Techniques

Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse circumstances. How do you know when you are stressed? Stress is different for everyone, but common symptoms include loss of interest and connection, difficulty concentrating, anger and irritability, hyper-vigilance, feeling helpless or hopeless, change in appetite, or substance use. Taking a minute to step back and identify when you are stressed is key to implementing self-care.

Self-care is often a first step to dealing with stress. Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup. You must take care of yourself first. Self-care techniques can include any or all the following steps:

Do What Makes You Happy

Like stress, self-care varies from person to person. Self-care could include exercise, time in nature, time alone, going out to dinner, journaling, reading, watching TV, learning new things, or engaging in crafts, among other joyful activities.

Ground Yourself

Plant your feet on the ground and take a minute to focus on the present.

Take a Few Deep Breaths

When I’m stressed, I get tight, maybe my heart races, and I get hot and worked up. Deep breathing can help you calm down, forcing your central nervous system to slow down. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and blow out through your mouth for a count of eight. Deep breathing slows your heart rate and relaxes you.

Ask for Help

This is a big one! In law practice, everyone is busy, and you do not want to burden others or add to the load. However, we all have a limit, and it is important to know when to seek support from others. Studies show that those who stay connected to others, whether it is coworkers, friends, or family, have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, and are more trusting and cooperative. Consequently, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. Unfortunately, this does go the other way, as low levels of social connection are associated with declines in physical and psychological health and a higher likelihood of antisocial behavior that leads to further isolation.

Seek Out the Positive

Sometimes, you might focus on the negative when struggling or feeling stressed out. This is called negative bias. By stepping back and reassessing the situation, whether a client issue or a challenging legal matter, you might realize you are seeing only the bad and missing all the good.

5 Things to Remember When Dealing with Difficult Clients

Difficult clients can throw a wrench in any attempt at self-care or maintaining a positive outlook. How can you manage stress while dealing with challenging people? Here are five tips to consider if you have a client with whom you have found it difficult to communicate or interact.

  1. Prepare for the Conversation: Reflect on your position and try to see the client’s perspective. Imagining the other perspective helps you garner empathy before the conversation. The ability to share the thoughts and feelings of another person is crucial for establishing relationships and displaying compassion. Simple statements like, “I can see how difficult this must be for you,” “If that happened to me, I would feel angry too,” or “It’s natural that you feel this way” can help the client feel heard and validated. Keeping that perspective in mind during the actual conversation is important. You also want to be direct, specific, and to the point.
  2. Avoid Communication Barriers: Consider whether you have a preconceived bias impacting the conversation. While it may be human nature, prejudging someone puts them at a disadvantage that they must overcome. It could be a specific legal issue you dislike or a certain age group or gender, but these preconceived discriminations determine how the relationship will start. Other communication barriers include not listening, engaging in power struggles by always pushing back when a client gets assertive or angry, arguing, or threatening. Threatening ​is a key communication barrier that often arises in lawyer-client relations. Still, lawyers can and should attempt to educate and empower the client rather than threaten as much as possible.
  3. Practice Active Listening: Simply appearing to be “not listening” is a common communication barrier. People are often angry because they don’t feel heard. Active listening is particularly important when communicating with clients. Clients want to know their concerns are valid, understood, and taken seriously. Listen before trying to defuse the situation. Avoid interrupting, even if you understand the problem or are aware of the solution before they finish speaking. Be mindful that taking notes or looking at a computer screen might be off-putting to your client. Listen with the intent to understand and help.​ Stay focused and engaged by asking relevant questions. Remember that restating and clarifying the message shows that you listened and can make the client feel validated and heard. Showing empathy does the same thing.
  4. De-escalate: The challenges of the past two years have made people reactive and more susceptible to rage. The frequency and severity of abrasiveness leads to high levels of stress and anxiety for lawyers just trying to do their job. Dealing with an angry or abrasive client can cause physical symptoms, such as a tight stomach or rapid heartbeat, and negative emotions, like decreased confidence. Common negative responses when faced with confrontation include​ responding angrily, raising your voice, interrupting, speaking disrespectfully, feeling intimidated, being overly apologetic, letting the client take over the interaction, leaving, or sending the client to someone else. Learning appropriate de-escalation techniques will help both sides have a positive experience.​ De-escalation techniques go against our natural fight, flight, or freeze tendency. The key to de-escalation is to remain centered and calm, even when feeling agitated, to help facilitate an effective conversation and allow a satisfactory outcome.​
  5. Be Aware of Voice and Body Language: When engaging in conversation, especially with a difficult or escalated client, it is important to be aware of your voice and body language. A lowered voice level may set a tone of anger that could create fear or challenge. ​A raised voice may set a tone of anticipation or uncertainty, promoting excitement or disruption. ​Speaking slowly is usually considered soothing, and ​a calm, controlled voice promotes confidence in both parties. Avoid talking fast, as this can be confusing and cause a client to think that their request is not being given the time it deserves. Be aware of your tone and inflection; “it’s not what you say but how you say it.” Make sure your voice sounds authentic and genuine, not sarcastic or disinterested. Thirty-eight percent of communication is accomplished by tone of voice, 7 percent is derived from words, and 55 percent is from facial expressions or body language. Be aware of your nonverbal communication. Your body language conveys a message. For example, making eye contact and leaning in shows you are engaged and paying attention, whereas leaning back with your arms crossed or looking at your phone indicates disinterest.

These tips are just a few ways that lawyers can deal with difficult clients. The challenges discussed above, negative bias, communication barriers, and daily life all illustrate why self-care is vital. It is important that lawyers can deal with stress and let the chaos go, but the energy must go somewhere. So, it is also important that lawyers find a way to channel that energy into something positive to allow the calm to restore. Finding positive ways to diffuse that energy—so you feel calm again—is how to stay resilient in the profession, especially when dealing with stressful situations like difficult clients.