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The Singapore Law Gazette

Working with Emotionally Vulnerable Clients – Tips and Strategies

Lawyers will encounter clients with a myriad of emotional problems across their varied and complex work. Working effectively with emotionally vulnerable clients is essential across all areas of law. This is particularly the case in family and criminal law where the emotional octane can run high. Legal work in these emotionally fraught cases can trigger already susceptible clients. In these cases, lawyers invariably perform heavy emotional labour in addition to their customary legal work. This emotional labour refers to the efforts involved in dealing with and managing the feelings of their clients while simultaneously regulating their own emotions in the discharge of their work.

Learning to successfully manage and deal with emotionally vulnerable clients leads to higher levels of satisfaction and success in the resolution of cases. It is also richly meaningful and enables lawyers to translate these skills and emotional intelligence to other aspects of their career which enables them to succeed. Preparing for and effectively working with emotionally vulnerable clients is critical for successful legal work. This requires understanding the signs and causes of emotional vulnerability in clients, utilising relevant support and building effective working relationships. This article provides an overview and strategies for constructively working with emotionally vulnerable clients.

Recognising Emotional Vulnerability

Difficult and traumatic cases involving highly emotive issues – like divorce, death, betrayal – elicit strong emotional responses from anyone including the average client. These same emotional responses are heightened in experience and effect for those who are emotionally vulnerable. Some groups are at a higher risk of having extreme emotional responses and concomitant issues. Those with mental conditions and addictions are more susceptible to being emotionally vulnerable. The classification of these disorders is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM 5) and includes disorders such as anxiety and depression, bipolar disorder, psychotic disorder and addictions including alcohol and drugs which induce extreme emotional states. Comorbidity is prevalent, and this also causes clients to experience a greater degree of emotional instability and turbulence.

Response – Tips and Strategies

Managing emotionally vulnerable clients and working with them is a two-way street. Lawyers need to assess if their actions are contributing to ease or adding further stress to the working relationship. Being aware and taking the necessary steps fosters a productive process and better outcomes for the partnership. A critical challenge for lawyers is being able to show empathy with clients going through a difficult period while also maintaining the objectivity and focus required to effectively advocate for their clients’ interests. A balance needs to be maintained between displaying empathy and showing the determination to counsel for a client’s rights along with the necessary space required to fulfil the primary lawyering responsibility to counsel clients in a straightforward manner and advise their best interests.

Establishing boundaries and managing expectations from the outset is necessary.
Setting boundaries while also being there to provide support in an emotional sense is critical. Being able to provide a depth of humanity and support while also clearly demarcating boundaries and managing client’s expectations is also essential. Clients, including those in emotionally vulnerable states have expectations and needs that are not purely centered on results but also dependent on how they feel working with the lawyer and being supported. Beyond the results alone, the services rendered and the feeling of being listened to and respected are important.

To ensure good communication and understanding, being clear and asking emotionally vulnerable clients what their expectation of services are is crucial. Having a frank discussion of the level of emotional support required and the designated level you can provide, makes things more transparent from the outset of engagement. Being reassuring that you are supportive, will be attentive and listen to their needs, yet also being clear that you will not be performing the role of a counsellor or psychologist is important. Instead, the client can be advised and referred to other psycho social supports as necessary to help them cope during a difficult period in their lives.

Emotions must be regulated to prevent a constant state of stress and burnout. Vicariously taking on client’s feelings and emotional problems distorts the boundaries of the lawyer-client relationship. Elements of extreme empathy in which the lawyer truly resonates and experiences the problems of the client detrimentally affects the health of the lawyer and leads to stress. It also affects the professional discharge of duties. At the other extreme, complete apathy, being indifferent to the client’s problems creates an atmosphere of isolation in which the client feels unheard and unsupported. Both extremes are unhelpful forms of coping mechanisms in dealing with a difficult situation. It is imperative to be aware of these extremes from the outset of engagement and respond accordingly. Even when there are times where it is necessary to not respond, do tell the client what you can do and work with regards to their specific goals such as, for example, gaining a quicker resolution and reducing litigation costs.

Display respect and sensitivity. This is conducive to building rapport and supporting free and open conversations that are necessary for establishing honest accounts and building a case. Mirror the client’s concerns by actively listening and reflecting the client’s concern. This also helps to lessen the emotional stress of the client as they feel listened to and supported.

Acknowledge the feelings of clients. Making empathy statements like, “I understand that you feel strongly about this” helps to diffuse the situation. Recognising their feelings and acknowledging them are different from validating them. Debating the cause of their feelings or getting emotional oneself is counter-productive. It may be difficult to change their feelings in the short run and will make a difficult situation worse.

Ensure that clients are aware that while their circumstances are unique, these difficult situations and cases have been encountered before. As such they are not alone and will eventually find resolution to their issues. Referring clients to psychological support and services that they can utilise is useful. Clients are thus able to obtain the best clinical expertise and the lawyers can focus on the core work for which they are trained. This is especially important in critical cases where emotionally vulnerable clients may express suicidal ideations or harmful thoughts and potential actions. Being able to connect and refer them to counselling is necessary. The lawyer is no longer obliged to play the role of a counsellor and the clients are directed to the appropriate and relevant psychological resources required.

Access support networks. Having the ability to access a supportive mentor and colleagues while supporting emotionally vulnerable clients is important. Experienced and seasoned lawyers can provide counsel to lawyers during particularly emotionally draining moments in a case. Wider support networks and a social life outside the legal profession also provides a crucial balance and normality to an otherwise intense and strenuous job. Being able to count on colleagues and external support during critical experiences is vital. The psychological health of lawyers is foremost to maintain their own well-being and sustain their practice.

Holistic self-care. Given the rigours and stresses of the legal profession, ensuring sufficient sleep, exercising, maintaining a well-balanced diet and engaging in passionate pursuits are all advised. Deep breathing and meditation have also been found to be helpful in providing clarity amidst the hectic case workload. These are usually things that lawyers “intellectually know” that are important but can easily skip due to work pressure or other financial considerations. They may skip sleep, healthy habits and take to unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking. Despite the scientifically proven benefits of healthy habits like meditation, nutritious diet and exercise, there is no one size fits all self-care plan for lawyers. How helpful one practice is will vary across lawyers. As such, assessing your previous coping skills and strategies from the past is useful. This provides a platform to build up new practices and skills that may aid in self-care.

Be strategic in the use of timing. Find ways to set aside times for work that is emotionally charged. Avoid meeting and scheduling an appointment with an emotionally vulnerable client before you are scheduled to make a presentation that requires positive energy. Set aside a specific time, wherever possible, to address difficult matters at specific times of the day that allow and align with the other work that is required across other cases. While discretion is required, try to also keep within finite times of meeting the clients. This will be useful in establishing boundaries for both you and your clients.

Maintaining perspective and a long-term view. Every case is important and has a consequence for the lives of each unique, individual client. A commitment of excellence and doing the best for each case can also co-exist with a healthy view that each is important but not all consuming. In a long career, there will be many cases to handle and trying to stay on an even keel and maintaining energy levels and mental well-being is necessary.

The profession of law and the human side of dealing with emotionally vulnerable clients is both inherently challenging as well as rewarding. Providing the best lawyering also involves dealing with the very human side, and utilising emotional intelligence along with the legal expertise to provide the best service possible. The tips and strategies shared here are not exhaustive, nor are they easy to implement. However, they serve as a simple guide for helping emotionally vulnerable clients who are in need. Recognising and connecting with the humanity of each client and yourself guides meaningful interactions and fosters productive outcomes. The inconsistencies, emotional vulnerabilities and challenges are reflective of wider humanity. The spectrum of the human condition and experiences of thoughts, behaviours and emotions is a wide and fascinating one. Being situated alongside and providing valuable assistance is a noble undertaking.