As legal professionals, it’s easy to forget how intimidating the legal system, lawyers, and legal processes can be to our clients. The truth is, very few of our clients actually want to be interacting with us. For some, the anxiety and fear of it all can be overwhelming.
Consequently, it is important for lawyers and other legal professionals to be able to recognize an anxious client.
Perhaps even more importantly, we also need to be able to calm that client when their active participation in the system becomes necessary (e.g., depositions, mediation, or trial).
In this blog, we’ll talk about the nervous client: how to spot them, how to talk to them about their nerves, and how to help them calm down before they have to participate in important case events.
How to spot a nervous client
Most of us are familiar with the telltale signs of nervousness. Things like fidgeting, sweating, shaking, pacing, blushing, or biting fingernails are all commonplace when a person is feeling anxious.
As a preliminary step, be on the lookout for these signals as you interact with your clients. You probably pick up on these cues intuitively, anyway.
Keep in mind, however, that some of your more sophisticated clients may have learned to mask or suppress those obvious signs of nervousness. Some go so far as to take prescription medications known as beta-blockers which are often used to eradicate the outward manifestations of nervousness.
That’s why it is also important to understand some of the more subtle signs of nervousness.
For instance, if a normally diligent client suddenly starts canceling meetings with your firm right before trial or a mediation, that may be a sign that they’re terribly nervous about the upcoming event.
Likewise, if a healthy client starts complaining of headaches, stomach pain, or sleepless nights, that could signal that their nerves are getting the best of them.
Why recognizing nervousness matters
You may be wondering why you need to be on the watch for client nervousness. After all, everyone experiences it at some time or another, so what’s the big deal?
When it comes to your client’s participation in their own lawsuit, though, anxiety can be a very big deal.
For one thing, anxiety is a primary cause of brain fog.
In other words, an anxious client is more likely to have problems concentrating, remembering, and processing information. That mental state can be disastrous when your client needs to be sharp, such as during a deposition.
Worse yet, the signs of anxiety are sometimes mistaken for signs that someone is lying.
Consequently, if you put a nervous client on the witness stand during trial, you run a real risk that the jury will think they’re not telling the truth.
So, what can you do to help put your nervous client at ease?
Start with honest, helpful communication
If you want to help someone who is experiencing anxiety, the very last thing you want to do is make them feel bad about what they’re going through. So, try to avoid saying insensitive things like “stop looking so nervous” or “what’s wrong with you?”
You also don’t want to diminish their experience.
When you say things like “there’s nothing to be nervous about,” you run the risk of making them feel abnormally sensitive. We all know the opposite is true; it is perfectly normal to be nervous about anything and everything that happens during the litigation process.
You have to talk about their nerves before you can help them calm down. To do this without putting your client on the defensive, try communicating validation and concern.
To validate the client’s feelings, for example, you might say something like this:
“I notice you’re looking a little nervous. That’s perfectly normal. Most people are nervous when they have their deposition taken. It’s my job to help you prepare thoroughly so you can feel confident going in.”
This not only helps remove the guilt the client may feel over being nervous, but it reassures them that you are there to guide them through this foreign process.
Expressing concern is also important.
You could say something like: “You’ve mentioned quite a few sleepless nights lately. That seems unusual for you. I know the trial is coming up and that causes a lot of stress for most people. Do you want to talk to me about any worries you have as the trial date approaches?”
By helping your client feel safe enough to express their anxieties to you, you accomplish two important things. First, you build a foundation of trust in your relationship. Second, you give them the chance to vocalize and work through their concerns so that they feel more confident about handling their side of the litigation process.
Helping calm the anxiety
Now that you’ve got your client speaking openly about the anxiety they’re experiencing, it’s time for you to help calm them down a bit.
In doing this, remember that much of a legal client’s anxiety comes from a lack of familiarity with the process. Thus, as a starting point, you can simply talk to your client about what they should expect every step of the way.
If there’s an upcoming deposition, for example, provide them a list of things they should expect to see on the day of the deposition. Tell them what the room will look like, who will be there, where everyone typically sits, what the court reporter does, how attorneys are likely to ask questions, etc.
Preparation is the best way to help your legal client work through their litigation nerves, but you might also share more general tips for easing anxiety. Advise your client to try these common stress-reducers:
- Get good sleep
- Exercise a little every day
- Aim for a healthy diet
- Avoid alcohol
- Cut back on caffeine
- Learn some breathing and meditation exercises
- Spend more time with loved ones
Whatever you do, just remember that your client is counting on you to make things easier in this situation. So long as you remain patient and kind as you help your client prepare for the process at hand, you should have no trouble making that client feel at ease.