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In this episode we talk to Nika Kabiri about how your clients’ stress makes it hard for them to make good decisions, and how you can help them work around it.

Link to what we discuss in this episode:

Nika Kabiri

Nika Kabiri is Director of Strategic Insights at Avvo, where she works alongside law and technology experts to make legal solutions more accessible to the public. A sociologist by training, Nika conducts research as well as leverages learnings from political science, economics, psychology, and sociology to understand what people go through as they navigate their legal issues.

You can follow Nika on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Thanks to Ruby Receptionists, Spotlight Branding, and FreshBooks for sponsoring this episode!

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Voiceover: Welcome to the Lawyerist Podcast with Sam Glover and Aaron Street. Each week, Lawyerist brings you advice and interviews to help you build a more successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Now, here are Sam and Aaron.

Sam Glover: Hi. I’m Sam Glover.

Aaron Street: And I’m Aaron Street, and this is Episode 119 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today, we’re talking with Nika Kabiri about how stressed out your clients are and how you can help them make good decisions anyway.

Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is sponsored by FreshBooks, which is ridiculously easy to use and packed with powerful features. Try it now at freshbooks.com/lawyerist and enter lawyerist in the How Did You Hear About Us section.

Aaron Street: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Ruby Receptionists, and it’s smart, charming receptionists who are perfect for small firms. Visit callruby.com/lawyerist to get a risk-freed trial with Ruby.

Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Spotlight Branding, which wants you to know that having a new website designed for your law firm doesn’t have to suck. Spotlight Branding prides itself on great communication, meeting deadlines, and getting results. Text the word “website” to 66866 in order to receive a free website appraisal worksheet.

Aaron, later in my conversation with Nika, I bring up sort of an anecdote from Jordan Furlong’s new book called Law Is a Buyer’s Market. In it, he makes an argument, and when I mentioned it, you decided you didn’t like the premise. I’m going to just sum up the point that he makes, because I think it’s interesting and I want to jump off and talk about it. Jordan says that law firms use words to market themselves like “excellence” and “high quality” and “zealous advocacy” and other luxury terms. He says that “Whether they realize it or not, lawyers presented themselves as an extravagant purchase to a market for which extravagance was not just out of reach, it was also a little insulting,” and that’s a quote from his book. I’ve taken it out of context, obviously, but not too far out of context. Tell me what you don’t like about that.

Aaron Street: I largely reject the premise of the blanket statement that this is how lawyers talk about themselves. I’m well aware that those are terms that some lawyers sometimes use to talk about themselves, but I know plenty of lawyers who market themselves as being compassionate or solving your problem. I reject the premise that the idea that zealous advocacy should be associated with a luxury good. That is precisely the thing that all lawyers should do. In your conversation with Nika in a moment, when you were talking about this…It’s weird to talk about in the future, you talked about…

Sam Glover: In the future, back to the future is podcasting defined.

Aaron Street: Yeah. You mentioned that your analogy here is that the luxury language is of luxury automobiles and why aren’t there lawyers that are Toyotas. I just dispute the idea that zealous advocacy somehow would be associated with a luxury car but that zealous advocacy doesn’t associate with a Toyota Corolla. You as a lawyer are meant to represent your client. Some lawyers will represent their clients as the best lawyer to get the best result. Some will represent their clients effectively by solving their problem quickly and efficiently. Some will do it by holding your hand and understanding you. Lawyers talk about themselves in a hundred different ways, and they don’t all hold themselves out as the luxury lawyer. Some do, but you know what? Some clients want that.

Sam Glover: Jordan is painting with a broad brush, and that’s his prerogative. It’s his book. I think that lawyers have traditionally, whether they have held themselves out as a luxury good or not, they certainly have priced themselves that way. It is kind of interesting. There aren’t a whole lot of lawyers saying, “Oh, you know, we’re good enough. We’ll give you good enough legal documents or we’ll give you good enough service to get it done.”

Aaron Street: Again, I dispute the premise. It depends on the lawyer and the practice area. I watch TV commercials, or used to in the ’80s because I don’t watch commercials anymore, for criminal lawyers and PI lawyers and bankruptcy lawyers who are all about the speed and efficiency and price with which they will get your thing solved. It isn’t at all about the leather desk and the fancy office. It’s all about solving your problem quickly because I’m here for you.

Sam Glover: Yeah, that could be. I don’t know. I’m uncertain how I feel about this right now, but I guess I’m curious about how people think about that. Maybe our listeners want to shoot us an e-mail and weigh in. I’d be curious. If you know of examples of lawyers who are marketing themselves more like Honda Civics than Mercedes, I’d be interested to see some examples of that, because I’m not sure I can think off the top of my head of too many examples of that.

Aaron Street: I think part of the issue is you are absolutely right that most lawyers price themselves in a way that makes their services a luxury good. That is not what we are talking about. That’s not the case Jordan is making. I absolutely agree that if everyone is $250.00 an hour, then that is not something that’s accessible to people. I know there are lots of efforts to do unbundled services, flat pricing to make the pricing of lawyers more accessible.

As far as the messaging of lawyers, I think the issue here is not that there is one message that is wrong for all consumers or all users of legal services. The issue is that you should have a match with what your message is with the work and clients you are trying to find. If what you’re trying to do is serve consumers in a way that is efficient and affordable for them, then your messaging should match that. If you’re at an Am Wall 100 firm trying to reach Fortune 500 CEOs, you absolutely should talk about excellence, because you’re solving a different problem.

Sam Glover: Actually, in this day and age, you probably talk more about efficiency, but…And I want to rehabilitate Jordan a little bit here because the point you just made is also his.

Aaron Street: Right. That is the broad point he’s trying to make is that law is a buyer’s market, meaning talk to and serve your clients. Don’t use language that sounds good to you. Your marketing language should reflect your audience, not you.

Sam Glover: Actually, his larger point is more about the need for alternative client service models, that if there is essentially…Now there are maybe two or three different client service models, but that the lawyers need to stop selling one product in one way and marketing it in one way, and lawyers need to reach out and try and find alternative ways to create client service models, market them, deliver them, all that kind of stuff. He’s talking more to mid-to-large firms, but a lot of small firms are headed that way, and we’re seeing more of it. Too many law people are…Our community there is working on different client service models, and obviously there are things like chatbots and LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer and there’s Axiom.

There’s all kinds of different approaches to it that are starting to find new client service models, so I’m optimistic, and I think Jordan is, too, that lawyers are going to start figuring this out. It’ll be interesting to see what shakes out the bottom. If you have examples of lawyers that market themselves in different ways, I would just be interested in collecting some of those, so shoot us an e-mail and give us some examples of different approaches to legal marketing. I’d like to see them.

With that, here’s my conversation with Nika on a slightly different topic of how to help your clients deal with their stress.

Nika Kabiri: Hi. I’m Nika Kabiri. I’m the director of strategic insights at Avvo. I spend all of my time researching legal consumers so that lawyers can help them better.

Sam Glover: Awesome. Thanks for being with us, Nika.

Nika Kabiri: Thanks for having me.

Sam Glover: Yeah. I just saw on your white paper that you have a doctorate. What are you doctor of?

Nika Kabiri: I do. I have a PhD in sociology. I kind of got there in a roundabout way. I’d like to call myself a failed lawyer. I had a JD in a previous life, and I did not really like law, so I just sort of went back to school to study law in a kind of a social way.

Sam Glover: Very cool. You are uniquely qualified to study the intersection of attorney-client relationships in law and sociology. Very cool.

Nika Kabiri: Yep.

Sam Glover: Today, we are going to talk about client stress, and this is related to a white paper that you just put together, and we’ll be putting it on the show notes. If you want to get it, just go ahead and look at the show notes for this episode and you should be able to download that PDF. It’s about client stress. Maybe you should start out and just give us a little background about where did the white paper come from and kind of talk about how did you put together the data.

Nika Kabiri: Right. As I mentioned, I spend pretty much all of my time here at Avvo talking to people who have legal issues and trying to understand their pain points as they resolve these issues. One thing that just kept coming up over and over again was this notion that they’re stressed, they’re under stress, particularly when they are about to hire a lawyer or seek out a lawyer to hire. It’s kind of an obvious thing, because any lawyer who’s practiced long enough will see stress in their clients that come in. Just knowing what I’ve known about impact of stress on human behavior…I’m studying sociology and psychology and all of that. It kind of made us want to explore this a little more. What is this stress doing? What is it making people do?

Sam Glover: Yeah, and I guess something that maybe I hadn’t really fully appreciated before I started reading your study was the process of, well, the process of solving legal problems from the client perspective is just stress, top to bottom, side to side, front to back. It’s just-

Nika Kabiri: Yeah.

Sam Glover: Whether or not you’re going to do it with a lawyer, it is stressful. Finding a lawyer, hiring a lawyer, paying a lawyer, all of that process, making decisions through the course of representation, it’s just top to bottom. It’s full of stress.

Nika Kabiri: It is, and on top of that, even if you don’t have a legal issue…The American Psychological Association does research on stress on a regular basis, and they found that eight out of 10 people, whether they have a legal issue or not, eight out of 10 people experience moderate stress every day, so add that to a legal issue and then the fact that they actually are dealing with the issue.

Sam Glover: Your base level is stress, in other words.

Nika Kabiri: Yes, our baseline normal is stress, and we sort of take it for granted, okay, people are stressed. Then we sort of move on from that, but we don’t really…I don’t think I have until I started digging into this really explored what that means.

Sam Glover: Yeah, so—

Nika Kabiri: What that does.

Sam Glover: Let’s start with how did you dig into that? Where does the information in the white paper come from?

Nika Kabiri: It comes from a variety of sources. First of all, we were trying to understand what does the stress that consumers experience look like. I did a survey of about a thousand general population. They’re not just users of our site, they’re not users of any particular site. They’re just people out in the world that have had a legal issue in the past two years. We just asked a bunch of questions about their level of frustration, how high are the stakes involved with their legal issue. Just a bunch of questions about that sort of thing.

Sam Glover: Can I ask just how do you find those people? Because I’m just curious, nuts and bolts. If I wanted to go find out information like this, how do I find a thousand people who’ve had a legal problem in the last two years?

Nika Kabiri: There are companies that specialize in collecting people who are willing to take surveys. Basically, you would just hire one of these companies to go out, and they do that for you. They go out and they find people who have had legal issues in the past two years. They pull them all together, and they kind of siphon them through the survey that you give them, and these people take the survey, and then they get the data to you.

Sam Glover: Okay, so that’s one source. I saw from the footnotes, you were pulling from a variety of other existing studies as well, looked like.

Nika Kabiri: Oh, there are so many brilliant people out there who have studied the subject of stress in a number of different places, everywhere from the Harvard School of Business to the American Psychological Association. There’s just so much out there, and I think we often don’t take advantage of this information. I don’t enough, so I just thought, “You know, you really do need to see what these people are saying,” so I’ve drawn on their research quite a bit.

Sam Glover: Stress is something we all talk about, and maybe we don’t stop to understand what it actually is. My takeaway from this is that the simplest way to understand it is stress is…You’ve got more technical definitions, but the way our body experiences stress is a little bit like if we were cave people and we looked outside of our cave to see a saber-toothed tiger. The way our body responds in that moment is actually quite similar to the way our body responds to any other stressors. Is that right?

Nika Kabiri: Right. Right, it’s very much that way. It’s like a flight-or-fight sort of experience or reaction, and our heart-

Sam Glover: I believe that’s called the lizard brain.

Nika Kabiri: Yeah, lizard brain. It’s a kind of a…It’s not an irrational kind of experience.

Sam Glover: Yeah.

Nika Kabiri: It just sort of hits you. This isn’t in the white paper at all. This is just an aside, but I had a personal trainer who recommended that when you do experience that, if you don’t exercise right away, the cortisol in your body just sort of starts to kind of take its toll and you can gain weight. If you do experience stress, do a bunch of pushups right away and it will help you kind of calm that down, because your body is expecting something really—

Sam Glover: Action.

Nika Kabiri: …intense to happen, and you…Action, and it’s physically preparing yourself for that. That’s sort of what happens, but what’s interesting is that’s really not…We think about that as stress, but it’s really more a stress response. It’s a response to a situation that I would think of as stress. It’s a totally different thing.

Sam Glover: You describe it in a way as when you need to do something but your resources available to complete that task exceed the demands of the task. You just aren’t—

Nika Kabiri: Yeah.

Sam Glover: You’re not emotionally, financially, physically ready to deal with divorce, but you have to or whatever.

Nika Kabiri: You have to.

Sam Glover: Yeah.

Nika Kabiri: Right. If you think about it outside of law, you need to get to work. There are a million cars that are in the way. Traffic is terrible, and you just can’t get there. You need to be someplace at a certain time, something’s blocking you. The route to your objective is blocked, and stress can kind of … The stress response can emerge from that. Even just something as simple as that can be explained by this particular definition.

Now I could say there are a number of different types of definitions of stress. Different experts think about it in different ways, but this definition, to me, which comes from the study of emergency management, seems to have the most relevance to legal issues.

Sam Glover: Yeah. I need to kill a saber-toothed tiger, but all I have is a sharpened stick.

Nika Kabiri: Right. Right, or I’m too small.

Sam Glover: Yeah, no, that’s—

Nika Kabiri: I’m too weak or—

Sam Glover: That seems totally—

Nika Kabiri: Whatever it is.

Sam Glover: That seems totally intuitively…It’s easy to get my head around that.

Nika Kabiri: Right.

Sam Glover: That makes a lot of sense to me.

Nika Kabiri: Right. It makes you do silly things. You can do kind of dumb things when you’re stressed out because you’re not thinking rationally.

Sam Glover: Let’s talk about that, because you really broke this down in detail, that, for example, the way we process and make risk decisions, the way we deal with risk is kind of weird when we are under stress.

Nika Kabiri: Yeah, so this is one consequence of the stress response or the reaction to not having the resources you need to get something done. Studies on risk behavior or risk-averse behavior have shown that people who are, well, let’s just say people who aren’t under risk or under stress, they’re generally more likely to be risk-averse when they’re choosing between two positive outcomes. If they have to choose between two negative outcomes, they are much more likely to be risky. If you’re facing a situation where you go one way, you could, let’s say, end up in jail for 25 years. You go another way, you could end up in jail for 20 years, I don’t know. This is just an example off the top of my head.

Sam Glover: You mean just go like, “Ah, fuck it, let’s take the risk.”

Nika Kabiri: Let’s just screw it.

Sam Glover: Yeah.

Nika Kabiri: Yeah, let’s just take a risk. Or in a divorce, if I negotiate this way, I could lose the house. If I negotiate this way, I could lose my two cars. Screw it, let’s just throw our balls out and argue until we can’t argue anymore, because it’s not…We’re just going to take the risk and go.

Sam Glover: Yeah. Conversely, if there are two positive outcomes, you’re less likely to take the more positive outcome.

Nika Kabiri: If there are two positive outcomes, you’re more likely to be thoughtful, less risk-taking, more conservative.

Sam Glover: Okay.

Nika Kabiri: What happens when you’re under stress is that this gets exacerbated. Two negative outcomes will lead to more risky behavior than even before. Two positive outcomes will make you more risk-averse than ever before. You can imagine if you’re an attorney and you’re providing your client with options, that if they’re under stress and the options are both negative, then they’re likely not to think very carefully about those options. They’re likely to just say, “Screw it. Let’s just roll the dice, just whatever,” but if you offer them two positive outcomes or options, they might be a little bit more thoughtful about it.

What I’ve recommended to attorneys is if there are two options that you’re providing, make sure that both options have a positive outcome presented. Otherwise, they’re just going to ignore rationality.

Sam Glover: Yeah.

Nika Kabiri: The other way to think about it also is that they will respond more to positivity. If you think about stress as like this negative emotion, so people might think about being all gloom and doom when they’re stressed out, but the truth of the matter is, is that they don’t want to hear bad stuff. They want to hear the good stuff, so keeping things positive. Not like, “Hey, you can do it” positive, but more presenting options that are equally positive could be really helpful in helping them think more rationally about things.

Sam Glover: You said also that … This is kind of a duh thing, I guess, but it’s really hard to concentrate and think logically and rationally when you’re experiencing a strong stress response. Obviously, you’ve got blood pumping in your ears, and it’s—

Nika Kabiri: Oh, yeah.

Sam Glover: …hard to just…Your heart is racing. I guess it depends on which kind of stress, but it’s really just a matter of degree. If you’re thinking about losing your home or losing your kids or losing your freedom, you’re probably going to be pretty stressed out and it’s really hard to stop and just think carefully and rationally about something. Can’t concentrate.

Nika Kabiri: Absolutely, absolutely, which is …To me, it explains why a lot of people who are going through a divorce … You hear horror stories that lawyers tell about what seem to be really kind of dumb people making kind of dumb decisions, like arguing, arguing, arguing over one little thing.

Sam Glover: Over the computer that is worth 500 bucks.

Nika Kabiri: Totally, and then racking up $2000 in billable hours just to fight over this computer. The truth of the matter is they’re not thinking straight, and they’re also thinking about what they’re going to get and not what they’re going to lose. They’re thinking about the positive and, “I get to get this computer. I get to get back at him,” or whatever, and not thinking about rationally what they’re going to lose out when they get the bill.

Sam Glover: Potentially, it’s the lawyer’s fault, which is what we’re going to talk about in just a couple of minutes. We need to stop and hear from our sponsors. Then I want to talk about the dos and don’ts and why maybe it’s partly the lawyer’s fault that people make dumb decisions like that. We’ll be back in just a few minutes.

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Sam Glover: Okay, and we’re back. Nika, I set this up by saying maybe it’s the lawyer’s fault that people fight over cheap computers. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems to me now that we know some more about stress, it’s the lawyer’s job to work with that and help their client make good decisions despite the stress. What do lawyers do that’s a mistake besides just completely ignore it?

Nika Kabiri: Yeah. If you don’t mind, I’d like to just sort of kind of respond to the whole thing about it being the lawyer’s fault—

Sam Glover: All right, fire away.

Nika Kabiri: …because it kind of is, but it really is more like a situation of perception being reality. If a client makes a really irrational decision under stress, they’re not going to perceive it to be their fault. They’re going to perceive it to be the lawyer’s fault, and so what ends up happening is the lawyer, and I’m sure many lawyers have this experience, that they have to kind of make up for some of the dumb decisions that their clients make. They have to work around them and kind of work with suboptimal situations.

What ends up happening is that the client may not love the lawyer, even though it’s not their fault. It’s just seen as their fault. They might not refer the lawyer, and the lawyer might miss out on future business. They might miss out on the opportunity to grow their practice. There is this responsibility of an attorney to feel a sense of empathy for your client and help them, but there’s also this component of helping yourself, avoiding those situations where you get to be the bad guy when it’s really not you that’s being the bad guy. It’s the stress.

Sam Glover: Whether or not it is fair to actually say it’s the lawyer’s fault, it’s kind of going to be and you need to work around it.

Nika Kabiri: It’s kind of going to have to be the lawyer’s responsibility, because they’re the one … Even though lawyers experience a lot of stress themselves, it’s up to them and it’s in their best interest to manage their client’s stress. The first place to start is to not tell your client to chill out. Don’t tell someone…I think most people who’ve been in an argument with someone who’s been really stressed out can tell you just telling this person to relax just makes them more angry. There’s actually research behind this. First of all, it take about 20—

Sam Glover: I can’t wait to tell this to my wife, by the way.

Nika Kabiri: …to 60 minutes… I know.

Sam Glover: This is an “I told you so” moment.

Nika Kabiri: Exactly. Oh, I’m sure. It takes 20 to 60 minutes for a person to even physiologically calm down that flight-or-fight response, and that’s even if there’s no added stress after the initial trigger. Telling somebody to chill out is not going to do anything. Also, it’s sort of like putting…I like to kind of use the analogy of putting a lid on a steam of boiling water. Yeah, the steam is not coming out as much, but it’s really kind of heating up a lot more, and it will eventually overflow. There’s a lot of psych research on this and that suppressing that stress will come out in really worse ways. Then, you’ll have the client that yells at you over the phone or gets even more angry. They might seem fine and then they’ll come back and just be really, really upset later because they had to kind of stuff it. Don’t tell them to relax.

Sam Glover: Don’t tell me to calm down.

Nika Kabiri: Don’t tell me to calm down, exactly, exactly. Also, if you’re thinking about your advertising and your marketing messaging, and your marketing to people and advertising to people who are stressed and to use messaging that says, “Hey, relax. I’m here,” that might not be as effective because they won’t really…That might not resonate with them as well.

What might resonate with them is if we go back and think about the definition of stress to begin with. It’s this gap between what they need to get it done and what they have to get it done. To message that you’re filling that gap for them, and if what they’re lacking is information, what they’re lacking is clarity or knowledge about the law, which is what mot people are, then you can suggest in your ad marketing materials, “Hey, I have experience. I have knowledge. I can give you clarity.”

Sam Glover: Essentially, “When you hire me, you have a new resource.”

Nika Kabiri: Yes.

Sam Glover: “I’ve just expanded your resources and now we exceed the resources we need to meet the demand.”

Nika Kabiri: Totally. It’s like being stuck in traffic and having a police escort come and part traffic for you.

Sam Glover: Yep.

Nika Kabiri: You don’t have to stress out. You can get there. That is probably the best place to start.

Sam Glover: What I used to tell my clients…I sued debt collectors and I defended people sued by debt collectors, and so my clients were experiencing financial stress, which is one of the biggest kinds of stress.

Nika Kabiri: Yep.

Sam Glover: They would come in, and after they signed a retainer with me, I’d say to them, “Okay, this is my problem now. Let me stress out about it. I will take care of it, and you can go home and not worry about it anymore because I’ve got this.” I’m trying to decide if that was the wrong message now or not, because it sounds a little bit like, “Calm down. I’ve got this,” but at the same time, I felt like I watched my clients sort of decompress as I told them that.

Nika Kabiri: Right.

Sam Glover: Because I think what I was sort of telling them in different words was, “Okay, it’s on my shoulders now, and my shoulders are big enough to handle this. I’m the resource that you needed, and I’ve got it now.”

Nika Kabiri: Right, right. There are probably two parts that most of those are probably happening. Yeah, they’re sensing that you’re the resource that they were not having before and they can relax, but I think with follow-ups, with keeping them in the loop, then they can continue feeling relaxed because I think not knowing what’s going to happen, that uncertainty, can also cause a lot of stress. It’s sort of saying, “Chill out, go away. I got this taken care of.”

There’s been some research on stress among military personnel that’s really kind of interesting and relevant here. The researchers found that when military personnel have very low levels of stress, they don’t perform very well, and if they have super high levels of stress, they don’t perform very well. There’s this sweet spot where there’s enough stress to kind of get their blood going, but it’s not too much to overwhelm them, and they perform really well under those conditions.

Sam Glover: Focused stress.

Nika Kabiri: Yeah. I think some of us have been…especially lawyers. If you’re going into the courtroom to litigate a case and you’re super prepared, it’s stressful, but it’s under control and you feel like you can conquer that. I think if you could imitate that feeling or create that feeling, sorry, for your client, “Yeah, I’ve got this under control. We’ve got this under control,” it’s still their case.

Sam Glover: It’s like when you’re in the zone.

Nika Kabiri: They can handle it. Yeah, totally.

Sam Glover: Yeah, there have been oral arguments where I’m citing facts from the record and synthesizing arguments from cases in ways that had never even occurred to me before and it’s coming out perfectly, and I’m just super lawyer. Yeah, if you could focus your clients in that way, that is awesome.

Nika Kabiri: Right. I’ve been there, too, where you’re just like, “How am I even doing this?” It is, it’s that super focused space.

Sam Glover: I feel like a lot of that is in the way … One of the things that lawyers do and have to do that creates stress for their clients is, “Okay, it’s decision time. Here is the problem that we’re facing, and I need you to make a decision.” We’re asking our clients to do that, and the ways that we can…You said it already, like phrasing each option. First of all, give your clients options. Don’t just present them a problem and say, “You sort it out,” but treat those options as if they are both positive.

Nika Kabiri: Right.

Sam Glover: I don’t know if I can come up with an example on the fly of that, though. Do you have one in mind?

Nika Kabiri: I kind of do. I’m going back to the example of a plea agreement where you can tell your client, “Okay, you accept this agreement and your case, you’ll have closure. Case will be over. You don’t have to go to court. You don’t have to drag this out. You don’t accept the plea agreement, you could go to jail for 25 to life.” What you have on the one hand is a positive outcome, and on the other hand you have a negative outcome.

First of all, don’t assume that your client is going to rationally ask questions or think it through. They’re freaking out. Their life is on the line. They’re freaking out. What they’re going to do is they’re going to focus on that positive outcome, “Oh, I get closure. I get to kind of put this behind me. I don’t have to go to trial.” That’s going to sound really loud to them compared to the negative outcome.

The best way to go is to say, offer a positive and a negative consequence to the plea agreement, “You can have closure of your case, but you will give up the opportunity to clear your name. You will not have a chance to have zero jail time. Or if you decide not to take the plea, you could go to jail for 25 to life, but you have this opportunity to clear your name,” et cetera. Then, of course, just clearing up, what are the chances of everything happening, because risk is a situation where you don’t know what the outcomes are. Making sure that they know clearly the chances, not the outcomes, but the chances of each outcome. Making sure they know clearly there’s a pretty good chance or there’s a terrible chance, that will help them as well.

Sam Glover: I guess you’re sort of touching on certainty, and you brought this up in another context around pricing. Lawyers maybe don’t appreciate how much uncertainty is built into, “Just give me some money and I’ll bill you by the hour.”

Nika Kabiri: Yeah.

Sam Glover: Literally, just by doing that, you’ve ratcheted up the base level of stress around the legal matter that you’re working on, because everything you do, “How much is this going to cost me? How much is it going to cost me?”

Nika Kabiri: Exactly.

Sam Glover: Yeah.

Nika Kabiri: I’ve talked to many consumers who’ve told me, “You know, lawyers are expensive, sure, but good ones are worth it,” and they’re willing, even though the ones that are price sensitive and equally the ones that aren’t, they’re willing to pay money, good money for a good lawyer. [Inaudible].

Sam Glover: But they kind of want to know how much.

Nika Kabiri: They don’t want to be surprised. That does kind of freak them out a little bit. That’s why fixed-fee services or flat rates, it kind of takes away…Even if it’s a high amount, it’s a lot better than an uncertain amount.

Sam Glover: Or even just an estimate. I imagine I would rather have somebody say, “Look, in the end, this is going to cost $30,000,” than to not know how much it’s going to cost and end up paying $20,000.” I think I’d rather pay 30 and be pretty confident that that’s how much I’m in for than to end up paying 20 after not knowing for months and months and months or years and years how much it was ultimately going to cost.

Nika Kabiri: I’m the same way, because you can prepare for that. You can kind of anticipate that. Also, another thing that’s useful is to…It doesn’t have to be all or none. A lot of clients or a lot of consumers, they feel like they can handle parts of cases themselves. I think this is kind of a sillier example, but the message is pretty clear. One woman I talked to said, “You know, I don’t need my lawyer to make Xerox copies for me and then bill me.”

Sam Glover: That makes sense.

Nika Kabiri: Yeah. “I don’t need that. He can give me the originals and I can go and make those copies at a copy shop myself, and I can save money that way.” There’s a little bit of, well, there’s a negative perception of lawyers around that, but also just being very clear up front of what are you paying for, what aren’t you paying for, and what can you do yourself that you don’t need to pay a lawyer for.

Sam Glover: You mentioned that in marketing, lawyers should convey their willingness to work hard. Tell me more about that. Why is that more effective than saying, “I will give you high quality representation,” or, “I’m the hammer and I’m going to go after them,” or something? Why is hard work a better value proposition on marketing materials?

Nika Kabiri: This is really interesting. This actually came out of a study that I did on Millennials, on younger legal consumers, but I also found it to resonate among older consumers as well. It’s about what constitutes a good lawyer. What does a good lawyer look like? There are all the specs, right? You can read reviews. You can see how many years they’ve practiced. You can see what law school they’ve gone to.

Then there’s always this X factor, and everyone is looking for that. I’ve not yet met a consumer, a legal consumer, who isn’t willing or really wanting to interview their lawyer first to look for that X factor. That’s the X factor, how hard they’re willing to work, because people are very realistic. They know that they may not win. They know that if they get a divorce, they are probably not going to get everything they want. They know that if they file for bankruptcy, it might not turn out exactly the way they’d like it. They are realistic about that.

What they want to know is, “Does this lawyer have my back, and is he or she going to get me as much as possible?” That’s where working hard and drive to them is sort of like an indicator of that. It’s sort of like a message or a signal that, “Okay, they’re going to get me as much as they can.”

Sam Glover: That kind of touches on so many of the uncertainties around the attorney-client relationship. “Is this lawyer just charging me a bunch of money or are they actually doing what they’ve said they’re going to do?” The number-one cause of bar complaints is lack of communication, because if I’m not communicating with you, the impression is I’m not doing anything for you, and you want to know that I am. If that bill shows up, and I was billing you despite not returning your phone calls, screw that guy.

Nika Kabiri: Right.

Sam Glover: That makes so much sense.

Nika Kabiri: Exactly. This is where stress kind of comes back in. People who are under stress, they’re memory sucks. They just cannot remember very well. You could have been responsive, you could have gotten back to them. They might not have remembered. You might have clarified in very clear terms what the milestones of their case are, what to expect. They might not remember, and that’s where over-communication might be a better way to go. Just respond a couple of times. Remind them over and over of what was…Yeah.

Sam Glover: I’ve just started reading Jordan Furlong’s book, Law Is a Buyer’s Market, and he talks about the way lawyers typically describe their services and how so many lawyers describe their high-quality representation, and they use quality markers and things in describing how great they are. He says that’s like saying that everybody wants to buy a Mercedes, but how do you advertise your services as a Toyota? I want a Toyota Corolla. I want a toaster that never breaks, that always runs, that works hard, that gets good mileage. I suppose advertising your reliability, your hard work, your consistency, those are the kinds of hallmarks that say, “You’re going to get your money’s worth. I’m going to work hard for you, and you’re going to get what you paid for.”

Nika Kabiri: Right, so there’s another part of this as well, which is when you talk about a product, like a car, or a lawyer being high quality, first of all, the focus is on them and on what they are, and it’s not so much on what they’re going to do for you. I think consumers more and more want to hear, “What are you going to do for me?” Second of all, quality is really, it’s kind of objective, but it’s kind of subjective. Sure, a Mercedes is a high-quality vehicle or whatever car you want to choose might be a high-quality vehicle. What if I need an off-road vehicle, and is it really quality? Is it high quality for me?

I think consumers now, because…I’ve written another white paper about this as well, because they have access to so much information via the Internet, they’re connected to each other more than ever, they can be picky. They have so many options available to them. There’s really this emphasis across all companies, brands, categories. Consumers want to personalize as much as possible, and I think to say, “I’m a high-quality lawyer,” doesn’t really say much about how that’s personalized to you. Saying, “I work really hard for you,” is a little bit closer to that.

Sam Glover: Yeah, and to say, “I’m going to work hard” is an assurance of some certainty. It removes some vagueness from the equation, I think.

Nika Kabiri: Right.

Sam Glover: Can we tie this up? Can we say what are the top dos and don’ts for lawyers? Maybe what are some of the best tips for lawyers to help calm their clients so that they can make good decisions or work with their stress so that they can help their clients feel more confident in the decisions that they’re making or in the outcomes they’re getting?

Nika Kabiri: Sure. First, kind of be the joint in trying to identify what’s missing for them. In other words, what is creating that gap? Is it knowledge that they don’t have? Is it money that they don’t have? What is keeping them from having all the resources they need to get the job done? Then work with them and message to them that you can fill that gap. Thinking about the definition of stress that way helps out a lot.

The second thing to remember is help them remember. They’re going to forget a lot of things because they’re under stress, so help them recall what they need to recall. Point out positive consequences. Talk about outcomes, not just in negatives but in positives so that they can be a little bit less risky and a little bit more rational about their decision-making and that they aren’t acting just on reaction and habit. Again, alternative billing models are part of a lot of this. Whatever you do, don’t tell your clients to chill out. They’re just not going to react. Don’t tell them to do that.

Sam Glover: Awesome. Nika, thank you so much for being with us today to talk about client stress. Again, I will include the white paper in the show notes, so as soon as you get a chance, go check it out. Thanks very much, Nika.

Nika Kabiri: Oh, thank you so much. Thank you.

Aaron Street: Make sure to catch next week’s episode of the Lawyerist Podcast. If you’d like more information about today’s show, please visit lawyerist.com/podcast or legaltalknetwork.com. You can subscribe via iTunes or anywhere podcasts are found. Both Lawyerist and the Legal Talk Network can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You can download the free app from Legal Talk Network in Google Play or iTunes.

Sam Glover: The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said during this podcast is legal advice.

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