Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Managing the Needy Client--Tips for Lawyers

In an earlier post, I outlined the pattern of the needy woman-disengaged man divorce. What follows are strategies for managing these clients to minimize the stress that most professionals experience.

For the needy (usually woman) client:

What they communicate:
Catastrophic expectations
Black and white thinking
Need for constant contact and reassurance
Impulsive decisions and poor judgment

What to do:
Call mental health professional
Think gray
Build trust, be consistent
Take threats seriously
Provide predictable, limited access to you or your assistant
Be calm,
Avoid surprises

Let me explain a bit about each of these "to dos". Since most of these women either already have therapists or need to be in therapy, the first call you should make is to the woman's therapist. You want to know what the presenting complaint was, how long therapy has been going on, how often the patient has talked about or attempted suicide, whether she is on anti-anxiety and/or anti-depressant medication and how much, how often she is seeing the good doctor, and how therapy is going.

"Think gray" means intentionally look for the exaggerations and distortions in the story your client is telling, and ask about the "other side" of the story. Few men are as monstrous as these women describe them (though some are cruel and abusive), and few mothers are as virtuous as these moms describe themselves. Ask these women to describe the "good dad" or "good husband" characteristics of their spouses, and they frequenty can find nothing good to say--this is a confirmation of the black and white cognitive style that traps these women in a world that is either "all good" or "all bad". Help the client to practice thinking both good and bad at the same time.

Because these women are so emotionally vulnerable, they personalize everything that happens, and much like young children, believe that they are the cause. Forgetting to return a phone call, being late for a meeting, or not taking their (20 times per day) phone calls will be interpreted by the client as "I am a bad person" and can easily turn into "I have a bad lawyer who doesn't care about me". For these women, regular, scheduled and frequent but short meetings (like every week but no more than two weeks) is important to build trust and get the client to confide in you. Otherwise, you will certainly be unpleasantly surprised by what you learn from opposing counsel. If you don't have time to do this yourself, delegate the task to your legal assistant and step in when the legal process demands it, but someone needs to maintain regular but limited contact with these clients. Don't promise what you can't deliver, and when you promise, do what you say you will do.

True borderline personality disorders make suicide attempts much more frequently than any other diagnostic group, and because their mood swings can be so severe, they can go from OK to suicidal in a flash. Consequently, take ANY discussion of suicide seriously, and make sure the therapist is on top of the situation. These women also make a number of suicidal gestures too, but a miscalculated gesture, designed to get attention and communicate helplessness can get out of hand and turn into a tragic and fatal event.

The best way to keep these women on an even keel is to be calm yourself. They are extremely sensitive to the moods of others and will react to them without awareness or self control. The more calm you are, the more calm the client will be.

Because of their limited ability to cope, surprises are NOT a good thing. Keep the client informed, in person when possible, and by phone if necessary, and then follow up with CYA letters. Bad news about the case will often NOT be heard and retained the first time, so be sure to confirm that your client heard you correctly by having her summarize it back to you. You will be astonished at the differences between what you said and what she heard, so be prepared to repeat and clarify her distortions and misunderstandings.

These strategies will help your client to cope and will make your job of representing her much easier. These clients require a greater time investment in order to provide adequate representation, so plan for more time and YOU be in charge of your time. Your client will thank you for it after the case is over.

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