Ok, you’re a licensed attorney, you have a real lawyer job, with a client case and everything! But now you actually have to talk to clients-on your own and sometimes they don’t trust you because you look so young. Or they expect you to know about some random issue that has nothing to do with your practice area. How can you present a cool, calm, collected persona so that your clients trust you when you know there is so much you don’t know?
First, take a deep breath. The good thing is that knowing there’s a lot you don’t know is the first step in good client counseling. It’s good to be nervous because you also recognize the importance of this case to this client and aren’t dismissive of that.
Next, the best way to feel more prepared is to, well, prepare. It may feel as if you can just blaze into a meeting and have all the answers but that’s not the way it works, even with client meetings. Prepping for those meetings and anticipating questions will help things go smoothly. Create an internal agenda (though it was always helpful to tell my clients what we were going to do in the meeting so that we were on the same page). If you feel really nervous then practice aloud what you’ll say. No one needs to know!
It’s also important to practice to help with time management—because if you let them, many a client will spend an hour answering one question.
If it’s possible, consider a phone call first—this takes some of the nerves out of the situation, but in person (or zoom in this new normal) will be an eventual part of your work.
And the biggest thing is to get comfortable with saying “I’m not sure.” I know this seems counterintuitive and as if attorneys should know everything but—surprise, we don’t. And clients shouldn’t think we do either. It’s ok to say that you need to look into it or the trusty “it depends” and then follow up with them afterwards. Being a lawyer is about providing counsel to clients, which means giving them the best advice possible—it doesn’t mean you’re the authority on all things.
Finally, what if you have to provide bad news? You lost a summary judgement? The other side declined an offer? The asylum case was denied? Those are the realities and we have to get into the habit of providing information as well as alternatives and next steps, because that is what the client is looking for. This can seem a little robotic but in a bad moment in a client’s life (maybe even one of their worst moments) they will look to you for guidance and assurance. That means—and I know folks feel a certain way about this—keep crying to a minimum. I know we’re all human and in moments of joy, emotion is good, but I implore you to manage your emotions as best as you can when delivering bad news. First, it’s not fair to the client to have to make you feel better at a low point in their life. Second, letting emotions take over will decidedly dash any hope they may retain or assume things are worse than you’re letting on, which is also unfair to them.
Eventually, meeting and interacting with clients will feel natural to you. Remind yourself that will find your stride and find ways to build trust as you go along. It really does get easier with practice!