3 worst ways to break bad news to a client

by Tonya Pierce


Paralegal news

Breaking bad newsRegardless of the type of law your law firm practices, you’ll occasionally be required to deliver bad news to a client. It’s never easy to give a client bad news (especially when you have no idea how they will react), but putting it off is never a wise choice. While you can’t change the circumstances, there are things that you can do to help your client as they deal with the news.

Never delegate the responsibility to another person

If you have been main contact person for your client, your client is likely comfortable with you. Delegating the task of breaking bad news to them gives the appearance that you don’t care about them. If the person you delegate this duty to is unfamiliar with the case, they won’t necessarily be unable to answer the client’s questions. And depending on the person you choose to deliver the bad news, they person may not have the expertise or experience to answer questions. You or the attorney should always be the point of contact who delivers any bad news to your client.

Never deliver bad news in a voice mail

Leaving bad news in a voice mail is never recommended. Your client may not be able to reach you right away to ask questions or obtain additional information. This causes needless stress and anxiety for your client. If you can’t reach them, leave a message to return your call as soon as possible.

Never put off delivering bad news to a client

Bad news does not improve with time. You don’t want your client receiving the bad news from another source either. By giving your client the bad news right away, the attorney and the client can begin to discuss alternatives and options for dealing with the situation. Delaying wastes precious time to discuss and explore other solutions.

How to Deliver Bad News to a Client

It’s never easy to deliver bad news to a client and, the more invested you are in the case, the more difficult this task will be for you. However, there are ways you can help soften the blow of receiving bad news.

  • Provide possible solutions – There is a reason why pharmacists mix sweet flavors into medications for children — it helps make the medicine more palatable. The same is true when you are delivering bad news. If you have several possible solutions to discuss, the client may not feel as if all is lost.
  • Be clear and concise – Don’t beat around the bush when delivering bad news. Be clear and concise. Give the news to the client in a simple, straightforward manner. Avoid legal jargon and simply explain the situation in a manner that a layperson can easily understand.
  • Be compassionate and respectful – Your client may display emotions such as anger, denial, or frustration when you deliver bad news. Respect their emotions and avoid becoming defensive by taking the client’s reaction to the bad news personally. Remain calm, allow the client to react to the bad news, and give the client time to regain their composure. Be as empathetic and understanding as possible while remaining professional.
  • Avoid blaming the client – There will be cases where the bad news is the result of the client’s actions or inactions. Avoid blaming the client and focus on what you can do to help them. You need the client to trust you and your law firm. This won’t be the case if you blame them for the negative turn of events.
  • Be prepared to provide details – Once your client is calm, they’ll likely have questions. Anticipate the questions they may ask and be prepared to answer them in detail. Being vague will only frustrate them which makes dealing with the bad news more difficult.
  • Whenever possible, deliver bad news when the attorney is in the office – Even though you are a capable professional, some clients will demand to speak directly with the attorney. Whether it’s because they don’t want to believe what you’re telling them or they’re angry because of the situation, try not to take this personally. Always make your attorney aware of when you’ll be meeting with the client to deliver bad news so the attorney can be prepared if they demand to see the attorney.
  • Provide as much information as possible – Always tell the truth and provide as much information as possible when giving bad news to clients. Think about how you react to bad news — you want to know everything about the who, what, when, where, and why. Telling a client “not to worry” is a useless endeavor that will cause the client to become frustrated. Providing details is often much more comforting than hearing someone tell you not to worry, everything will be okay, and that things are not as bad as you think.
  • Follow up with you client – Make it a priority to follow up with your client within a day or two. This lets them know that they’re a top priority and can be very comforting. Also provide status updates as the case continues to reassure them that the both you and the attorney have not written the case off as a hopeless situation.

Think about how you’d like to receive bad news

Unless you’ve walked in your client’s shoes, you can’t truly understand how devastating it is to receive the bad news you’re delivering. However, you can spend time considering how you prefer to receive bad news. How would you react if someone gave you bad news in a way that was unprofessional or unkind? If you take time to plan how you’ll deliver bad news to your client, the task will be easier for you and better for your client.

Tonya Pierce is a paralegal with over 24 years experience in several areas of the legal field (17 years as a bankruptcy paralegal and trustee paralegal).


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