One thing they don’t teach you in law school is how to respond when you think a client is going to harm you. Hopefully you never need to know that, but reading a recent article of an immigration attorney who was stabbed by their client, it dawned on me how necessary it is to talk about managing experiences with volatile clients in order to keep yourself safe.
First, I don’t want to talk about this to instill fear in people or make lawyering seem overly dangerous. However, in one study of 22 states, it found that up to 46.5% of registered attorneys had been threatened or assaulted. It helps no one to ignore realities and the reality is that clients can become angry at a situation; or they can become angry at you; or they can just normally run a little hotter than others and cause situations that make you uneasy. What do you do in those situations where a client is making a scene in your office because they don’t like how a case is going; or they reference the fact that they carry a weapon with them?
Regardless of how tough we’re supposed to act, your physical safety is number one. You have to know your firm’s policies on extracting yourself from bad client interactions and hopefully they are empowering you to stay safe. If there’s ever a moment with a client interaction where you don’t feel safe, don’t hesitate to leave the room and get yourself somewhere safe. Don’t worry about offending or overreacting when you think your safety is at risk.
Beyond physical safety, I want to touch on verbal abuse. As I mentioned, you may have clients that are irate that they have to go through a legal process or blame you when it’s not going great. Does that give them a free pass to call you every name in the book? Of course not. You should feel secure in telling someone who is disrespecting you that they need to stop. However, while you don’t have to take disrespect, a lot of lawyering is walking people through emotional outbursts. Sometimes those outbursts are benign even if they are aimed at you. For example, you lost a motion and the client screams that they want a real lawyer not some idiot—in those cases you can gauge whether it’s worth addressing comments that are obviously made to rile you up or if it’s more productive to re-focus on the next steps. A lot of helping folks navigate those outbursts requires some stoicism (even if internally you want to cuss them out).
But when a line is crossed into threats, it’s appropriate and imperative to know your safety plan and follow through with it.
For outsiders looking in, this may seem clear cut, but there are a lot of complexities with representing clients—most attorneys are hesitant to do anything that may break the bounds of client privilege. In other cases, even if you want, it’s not always easy to end representation. But mostly, I think we struggle with when to say “enough,” because we’re trained and expected to take a lot of shit from people—whether it’s opposing counsel or clients who feel entitled (or community at large that think lawyers are evil). But feeling safe and secure is your right. As you gain more experience working with clients and managing expectations, the easier it will be for you to trust your instinct and keep your wits about you.
Again, this isn’t to scare people off, but clients are human under incredibly stressful situations. They are looking to you for guidance but don’t always react appropriately—recognizing threats, trusting your instincts, and having a safety plan will keep you safe and allow you to continue providing the best representation you can.