In every business relationship there will be moments of miscommunication, misunderstanding or good old-fashioned error. In a lawyer/client relationship, these awkward moments can also result from a difference of opinion over objectives, timing, cost or methodology.  These moments are inevitable, but how we deal with them often defines the future of that relationship.

As a personality type, lawyers are risk-averse and this often translates into avoidance of perceived conflict.  Not what you’d expect from a lawyer – especially a litigator – but a reality none the less.  This means that their preferred methods of dealing with potential client issues can be a. denial; b. avoidance or c. making the “strategic” choice to allow a cooling off period the never ends (which usually translates into avoidance).

These options might appear to be safe, temporary solutions but in fact, these courses of action can have all sorts of negative consequences:

  • The client doesn’t feel heard: If a client raises an issue and you seem to ignore it or put it on the back burner, the client will believe that the lawyer disagrees with the client but won’t tell them to their face.
  • The client doesn’t feel valued: If the lawyer appears to have heard the issue but then doesn’t deal with it, the client can feel that they are not a sufficiently important client to that lawyer that they must be taken care of. No one wants to feel like a mere number.
  • The client loses loyalty: Ultimately, if the client feels any of the emotions above, they will feel less loyal to their lawyer. Research from the US suggests that most clients – even happy clients – would be willing to try out another lawyer or law firm over 60% of the time.  That number climbs steeply with a dissatisfied client.  And once that door is open, what are the chances the client will go with the other lawyer?  Pretty high.

I learned many years ago that the best way to deal with a difficult issue is:

  1. Pause: We know something is wrong when our gut tells us something isn’t quite right, or when the client tells us either indirectly or directly that there’s an issue. Don’t gloss over the moment.
  2. Acknowledge: Realize that this moment is a cross-road that can take the relationship to either a lower or a higher place. Acknowledge what the client has told you through active listening, then embrace the opportunity to dig deeper.  You may not be certain that there’s an issue.  That’s OK.  Commit to finding out if there is and if so, how bad it is.  You do that by discussing the issue (not defending yourself but instead, fact-finding) with the client.
  3. Deal with it: Often, the best way to deal with something you’re not comfortable with is to face it and go right through the heart of it. That means that you need to continue to speak with the client, and work together on a fix. More on that below.
  4. Move on: Once an issue has been resolved, carry on with the relationship. Don’t get hung up on what happened.  Focus on the fact that by addressing it, you turned it around into something positive.

It’s one thing to know the recipe for dealing with conflict: it’s quite another to bake the cake.  So here are more details on how to do this well.

  • First, do your research and try to determine what might have gone wrong. Speak with team members.  Touch base with other contacts within the client company (if available) to suss out potential issues so you can be better prepared.
  • Next, approach the client (or client contact, for larger organizations) and ask them if there’s a problem. Do this with an “open” tone and body language, not defensively.   Re-iterate that your goal is to provide them with great legal services, in a way that best works for them, and that if that’s not happening you’d like to know so you can adjust your delivery.  In my experience, very few lawyers have the courage for this conversation so it doesn’t happen often.  The very act of asking will be sufficient for the client to open up honestly about what might be going wrong.
  • Don’t be defensive. That means don’t defend your actions.  In other words, don’t argue for your perspective.  Have I said “don’t be defensive” enough?  Instead, just listen, and perhaps ask clarifying questions (and not questions that are thinly veiled preparation for defense…you know what I mean).
  • Use active listening to show you are really hearing them. Remember, proving that you’ve heard someone doesn’t mean you agree with them.  It just means you’re hearing them.
  • Once they’ve aired their grievances, focus them on what they DO want. You’re now moving them into joint problem solving.  This means that they are seeing you as part of the solution.  This is a good thing.
  • Now you can negotiate the solution. There’s an expression in mediation: listen to understand so you can speak to be understood.  In a conflict situation, the other party will not be prepared to negotiate until they know without a doubt that you have heard and understood their perspective.  But once they are assured of this, in most relationships they will be willing to do joint problem solving.   You don’t need to give away the farm at this point, but you do need to help to build a solution that recognizes previous deficiencies, and shores up processes to limit the likelihood of such deficiencies occurring again.
  • At this point, I often encourage lawyers to go one step further. By now you’ve probably had a deeper and more honest conversation than any lawyer has ever had with the client.  This may open the door for a more honest and forward-thinking relationship.  I might say something like: I’m so glad we got to the bottom of this and determined a way that I can provide better services to you.  Thank you for being so honest with me.  But it makes me wonder: what else should I know about your organization that I don’t know now?  How else can I provide greater value to you?”  This moves into more of a selling conversation, as the client is in the mindset to see you as a partner in possible solutions and improvements to other issues within the organization.

When you consider the starting point, the ending point is remarkable.  But it’s also incredibly easy to get there.  It’s shocking to me that more lawyers don’t embrace moments of potential conflict as opportunities to deepen the client relationship.  In fact, years ago the Marriott Hotel chain conducted research that identified when a guest had a complaint about the hotel, they told an average of 9 people.  But when the hotel fixed that issue in a way that showed outstanding client service, the guest told 19 people.

Fixing issues can be some of the best marketing you’ll ever do because if done well, the conversation can open the door to a deeper, more trusting and more loyal relationship with your clients.  And the more you practice these skills, the more likely that an issue doesn’t need to get acute before you recognize it.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at