By Dr Bob Murray

Member of the Advisory Board

Recently I was talking with a friend of mine who is a practice leader in a major firm and he was
telling me a horror story about one of his major clients. Apparently, the client had suddenly decided
that his firm would no longer be able to do any work for the client’s company and that all matters
that were then open had to be passed over to other firms for completion.

“Clients are becoming more irrational,” my friend declared. “This one decided that because we sometimes work with another firm they were having a dispute with , we were taboo. We had nothing to do with the dispute. Crazy!”

It’s an interesting question: Are clients becoming crazier? As a clinical psychologist, as well as a scientist I try to avoid terms like “crazy” but if you take it to mean more short -sighted in their responses and more irrational in their decisions, I think the answer is yes and that’s because, maybe, we all are. A number of studies have shown that the main reason for this is the huge increase in the rates and severity of workplace stress over the past few years, especially among lawyers.

My interest in workplace stress is personal as well as professional since I used to serve (under the late lamented Obama Administration) on the US Department of Health and Social Security’s panel directing a major nationwide initiative aimed at reducing the incidence of stress in US workplaces. Stress is currently reckoned to cost US businesses over US $1 trillion a year in lost productivity and other costs (US $200b in health care costs alone).

Workplace stress, is largely behind the rise in the rate of depression and anxiety (both of which are a serious problem in law firms as well as among their clients), together with a number of serious physical illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, fibromyalgia and some cancer. The demands that are placed on employees (including lawyers) are too great. We have simply pushed the human system way beyond its design specs and, like anything else stressed beyond endurance, it is breaking.

A study done in 2012 found that, at the then rate of increase, work stress will have increased by 200 percent by 2020 (Hudson Institute, unpublished). It has been convincingly argued that stress was behind many of the decisions that led to the GFC. When humans feel that they are under stressors that they can’t control , the decisions they make tend to be not only bad and irrational, but overwhelmingly short -term. And many of your clients have made stupid, short -term decisions which they want you to fix. This will only increase.

Part of this stress is fear of job loss. Maybe the majority of your clients, in these days of uncertainty, fear the loss of their livelihoods. This will have led them to decisions which, at best, are unsound and potentially disastrous for themselves and/or their firms.

Research has shown that bad corporate behavior —bullying (including cyberbullying), sexual and other harassment, excessive risk-taking, fraud, theft —is also causally linked to stress. For example, people who feel insecure in their jobs are more likely to commit fraud. In fact, they often feel they have a right to take what they can before the axe falls. Or to commit criminal, or at least antisocial, acts (sometimes encouraged by management) in an attempt to prevent job loss.

A study published recently found that the stress of having to always be there for the client or the customer leads men and women to bully or harass their co-workers or staff. Yet partners and others are constantly being told that they must be more client-centric (whatever that means). Of course, this is a problem not just in law firms but also in the offices of their corporate clients.

So, what do you do? How can you deal with stressed clients? Since people don’t come into your offices with a label on them reading “I am under a huge amount of stress!”, it’s probably impossible to avoid the “crazy” client. But you can take steps to reduce their (and your own) stress level and lead them to make better decisions, at least in the matter at hand.

Here are just a few simple things you can do to promote better outcomes:

Be aware of your own mental state

Research published over the last few years has shown that stress is highly contagious. Try not to pass your own stress on to your client, even temporarily.

Be sure of your own boundaries

Being “there” for the client 24/7 actually damages the relationship and adds to the anxiety level of both of you. You having firm boundaries will increase the client’s sense of relational safety and trust.

Meet in a quiet room with pictures of nature or wildlife on the walls

This reduces the effect of the stress hormone cortisol. Apart from anything else the cortisol mitigation will ensure the client is less likely to have a heart attack on your premises!

– Offer refreshment —including food— to the client

This encourages the production and uptake of two vital anti-stress neurochemicals glutamate and oxytocin.

– Make sure that there are a lot of potted plants around

These have been shown to reduce the levels of anxiety, depression and stress (cut flowers for some reason don’t do it).

– Don’t charge by the hour

This method of billing hurts client relationships and adds needless stress to the lawyer/client
encounter.

You can’t cure your clients’ stress or stress-related illnesses. But you can, to some extent, make sure that while they are in your offices their decision-making is better and they are, for that time anyway, less “crazy.” These steps will also help you keep your own stress levels under control, which may be the most important thing of all.


Bob Murray, PhD is a principal at the international consultancy Fortinberry Murray. He is the author of 11 books, most recently (with Dr. Alicia Fortinberry) “Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership” (Ark Publications http://fortinberrymurray.com/leading -the -future/ ) and a regular speaker at law leaders’ conferences in the US, Australia, the UK and Asia.

He is an award -winning scientist and a psychologist. He specializes in helping firms in the areas of leadership, strategy, marketing, BD and culture change. His clients include major law and professional service firms, governments and many Global 500 companies. Bob and Alicia’s international best -sellers, “Creating Optimism” and “Raising an Optimistic Child” (McGraw -Hill), are available on Amazon and from the Fortinberry Murray website: https://fortinberry – murray.myshopify.com/ . 3 www.fortinberrymurray.com +61 2 8224 5