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How to help small business clients through their toughest issues

As a legal professional who often works with small businesses, you see the same issues crop up day after day. Based on your experience, you know that most (if not all) of these problems are solvable, and that business will be back to normal soon.

For your clients, however, any legal issue can be downright terrifying.

Remember, a lot of these folks are entrepreneurs who simply had a good idea for a business and are making a go of it. Unlike you, they probably aren’t educated in things like tax, employment, and contract laws. And, unlike you, they’ve never navigated the legal system before.

Having empathy towards your small business clients will help your job go more smoothly and build your firm’s reputation as a trusted advisor.

To help build that all-important empathy, let’s look at 4 of the top legal issues facing small business owners today and explore your clients’ perspectives. You’ve already got the legal expertise — now, you’ll have the deeper knowledge you need to serve those business clients well.

First, what is empathy?

Empathy is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot without people actually stopping to think about what it means. We call people “empaths” or accuse them of “lacking empathy,” but what do we actually mean when we say those things?

Well, according to Merriam-Webster, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

Being empathetic toward someone requires more than just active listening. In addition, “empathetic listening puts a special emphasis on understanding the other person’s emotional experience.”

This sounds easy enough, but some people lack empathy; there’s even a thing called “empathy deficit disorder.”

Moreover, people who work in professions where they deal with other people’s problems — like therapists or legal professionals — can even develop empathy fatigue. When that happens, those professionals grow numb to their clients’ pain, and it shows.

Empathy is a critical aspect of providing superior legal services. So, let’s take a look at how you can display empathy when your clients come to you with the following common small business problems.

Employment disputes

Small business owners must comply with a variety of employment laws, including minimum wage and overtime laws, anti-discrimination laws, and workers’ compensation requirements.

Employees, both current and former, may claim that their employer didn’t comply with these complex regulations. This can result in expensive lawsuits and damage to the business’s reputation.

How to show empathy for these clients

Employment law cases can be highly emotional for everyone involved. Workers often feel abused, and your client might feel used, insulted, or blindsided by these accusations.

For example, your client may have been accused of something like age discrimination. These types of accusations feel like personal attacks on a small business owner, especially for owners who are typically very conscientious about such issues in their professional and private lives.

They may have fears that the accusations will ruin their reputation on multiple levels.

If the accuser was once a good friend, they are likely to feel betrayed and hurt.

When you counsel these clients, think about how it would feel if someone accused you of mistreating employees.

It’s scary, isn’t it?

Employment issues are often framed as the poor, hard-working victim versus the evil, greedy boss, and it will help to acknowledge that your client feels like the actual victim here. They’re not evil, and they’re probably not trying to profit by dishonest means.

These clients, more than most, may need personal reassurance that they’re not the bad guy the case makes them out to be.

Contract disputes

Contracts are a key part of business operations, but they are also a common source of conflict.

From fighting over the meaning of poorly-drafted contracts to battling an outright breach of a crystal-clear contract, these cases are extremely frustrating for small business owners.

How to show empathy for these clients

Small business clients facing their first contract dispute are often terribly frustrated with legal processes.

They know they need contracts to secure their business arrangements. When they end up in litigation despite having taken the time to enter written agreements, they can start to feel like everything they’ve done to safeguard their business is meaningless.

It’s also intensely frustrating when the breach of contract seems obvious, but they have to go through a bunch of legal rigamarole to enforce an agreement they’ve already made.

Counseling these clients often requires listening to rants about how horrible “the law” is.

That’s hard. After all, the law is your whole life.

Trying to explain why the law works this way — or, worse, arguing with your client about whether or not it’s a good system — will only fuel that frustration more. They already feel like this situation is them versus the unfair legal system, and if you argue in favor of that system, you’ll create an adversarial relationship between you and your client.

Your best course is to encourage them to talk it out.

Listen to their complaints, and acknowledge that this process is long and complicated. Don’t just tell them you’re on their side; prove it by understanding where they’re coming from.

Intellectual property theft

Intellectual property such as trademarks, patents, and copyrights can be valuable assets for small businesses.

Nonetheless, just because they’ve taken the time to secure their intellectual assets doesn’t mean that somebody else isn’t going to try to use them anyway.

A client doesn’t call a lawyer as soon as they see someone else using their trademark. They’ve almost certainly tried to resolve the situation on their own. If they hired you to defend their intellectual property, it’s because their attempts to talk to the offender have fallen on deaf ears.

How to show empathy for these clients

These clients tend to be mad. Their intellectual property is their baby, and very likely their livelihood. Whether it is an invention, a slogan, or a poem, it is hard for them to sit idly by while someone else reaps financial benefits from their ideas.

Often, before these clients can focus on the matter at hand, they need to be reassured that they deserve to be compensated fairly for their work…and that hiring you was the right way to accomplish that.

These clients also have an intense interest in protecting future ideas from being exploited, so be ready to talk about preventative strategies with them as well.

Regardless of the applicable laws, many creators feel attacked by the debate around whether or not stealing intellectual property is actually theft.

Make it clear that you’re on their side and will work hard to help them protect their rights.

Tax problems

Small business owners were often solo entrepreneurs before their idea took off, their business grew, and they needed to hire employees.

Suddenly, they’re forced to comply with a variety of tax laws, including income tax, sales tax, and payroll tax. These laws can be confusing, and some entrepreneurs never think to look up the requirements as their business grows.

Typically, they come to you when they’ve screwed something up and a state or federal agency is breathing down their necks.

How to show empathy for these clients

More than anything else, these clients are scared. They’ve likely never been in trouble with the government, and they may be shaking in their boots from a delinquency notice they’ve received.

With these clients, try to be cognizant of what powerlessness feels like.

Then, get to work on easing the anxiety that’s causing them to feel that way.

Talk about how many small businesses also have tax problems. Discuss the commonality of work-out arrangements with taxing authorities. Assure them that the notices they’ve received are all part of a regular collection process. Offer reassurance by explaining the whole process and showing them that their business is not going to implode because of one slip-up.

Through it all, try not to forget that for these clients, knowledge truly is power.

You might even consider spending some extra time looking at their bookkeeping to help them get ahead of other issues that might arise.

The bottom line: empathy is good for your business

Empathy requires you to think about what your client wants, but it helps you get what you want, too: easier work, more clients, and perhaps even more successful cases.

Think about it.

When your client likes you and trusts you, aren’t they more cooperative? They’re a lot more likely to feel good about the work you’re doing and the price they’re paying for it.

Maya Angelou once said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This is true in life and in your legal career.

If you can show empathy toward the issues your small business clients are facing, they’ll never forget you (and they’ll likely recommend you to others).

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