When it comes to professional detachment, lawyers get a lot of mixed messages.

Advocate zealously ! But don’t get emotionally tied up in your client’s problems, because it will cloud your judgment. Empathize! But not to the point where you take your client’s stress home with you. Humanize the law for your clients! But be able to dump a bad client. Do pro bono work! But stiff-arm deadbeats!

There’s no surefire way to resolve the complex conflict between on the one hand wanting to be a good and kind person who genuinely cares about clients, and on the other hand keeping yourself from drowning in the roiling seas of client drama.

As professionals, lawyers are supposed to be “detached” from their clients. Cool, dispassionate analysts of law, facts, and risk, we release our inner thespian only in court, and even then we are acting only because it works.

Monetizing a smile

But it’s not that simple. Have you ever noticed that the people who get promoted are often not the most productive or expert at their jobs, but instead just get along great with those doing the promoting? That’s because it’s impossible to take the human element out of work. And if it is not easy to measure in dollars how well you do your job, relationships become as (or more) important than skills or productivity.

And no professional’s work is tougher to quantify than a lawyer’s (unless you are one of the unlucky souls who labors to meet billable hours “goals”). That’s why the way you relate to your clients is often as (or more) important than the results you get for her. A client without experience in, say, civil litigation has no idea what to reasonably expect from the lawyer in terms of results. But the client certainly draws conclusions about how well the lawyer relates, and those conclusions, as much as legal results, drive referrals.

Fake it till they make it

So there’s good reason (beyond you’re the fact that you are completely honest and love people) to relate well to clients—it helps bring you more clients.

I think the best choice between drama and detachment is the latter—but you need to know how to act empathetic, even if you don’t feel that way.

I’m not advising anybody to be dishonest. But we learn, as soon as we get our first job (mine was mowing grass) that it’s important to put our work face on while working. We show a lot more patience and cooperation with co-workers and bosses than we honestly feel we want to show. But we do it, because that’s what the job requires. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The same goes for lawyering. If you genuinely become friends with a client, great. But don’t let that friendship blur your legal focus. And if you don’t feel a connection with your client, act like you do, at least to the degree that good (and profitable) lawyering requires. And everyone, even lousy clients, should be treated with respect (even if they don’t return the favor).

There’s one more moving part in all this. We all view our own behavior through our own personalities. There are people who consider themselves warm, caring, and outgoing who just don’t come across that way to others. So it’s smart to ask people that you trust to tell you their honest opinion about your people skills, so you can work on improving them.

(photo: railway track switch from Shutterstock)

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