Dealing with a Client’s Feelings and Emotions

As lawyers, we have learned that feelings and emotions are not relevant to the elements of a cause of action or to the proper analysis of a legal issue.  Yet, when a client is in the midst of a legal problem the legal issues are only part of the client’s experience. 

A client might be angry about something that happened.  He or she might be worried about the future.  A client might feel hurt or betrayed by what someone else did.  A company facing a legal problem might be concerned about its ability to survive.  The client’s feelings about the situation are important to the client, and perhaps more important than the legal issues involved.   

Some clients want to express their feelings about a legal problem in a privileged conversation with their lawyer.  They may simply need to vent, or they may be seeking reassurance and emotional support from an independent professional.

When a client expresses feelings and emotions, it is best to listen with empathy.  You can listen to the client and acknowledge the client’s emotional experience whether or not you would feel the same way.  When you believe it is necessary to say something in order to let the client know you really are listening, short comments such as “I understand,” “that must be hard,” “wow,” and “I’m sorry that happened to you,” can be helpful.

A client’s feelings and emotions cannot be rationalized away.  Logical and emotional functions reside in different parts of the brain.  Attempting to talk a client out of the feelings and emotions the client is experiencing will not be successful.  Pointing out the irrelevance of feelings and emotions to the outcome of a client’s legal matter is likely to make the client even more upset.   

Remember that feelings and emotions are highly personal to the person experiencing them.  Be very careful to refrain from sharing a similar experience that happened to you or to someone close to you.  And never say anything like, “I know how you must feel.”  A person cannot possibly know how another person really feels.    

By allowing clients to express feelings and emotions when they have a need to do so, and listening with empathy, you will be acknowledging the totality of their experience.  You will gain the trust of your clients and strengthen your professional relationship with them.