Having discussed the need to develop emotional resilience, beat long-term stress, stay grounded during difficult cases, and balance professionalism and compassion, we now move on to the next survival skill for lawyers: Managing anger, both yours and that of your clients.
Why Is It Important to Have a Handle on Anger?
Anger falls in the same category as stress. It is a natural human reaction that, if used in the right way, can protect and help us react to danger. But like stress, when left unchecked or unmanaged, anger can turn into rage with damaging consequences for ourselves and others.
Clients come to us with problems, often in a distressed state, and our job is to ensure they are protected, legally, to the best of our ability. To express that in emotional terms, clients expect us to help them feel safe, secure and comfortable. We expect that from all the professionals in our lives.
The legal profession requires that we think clearly, remain competent and communicate well. Being angry to the point of losing control — or being resentful or irritated for any sustained period — prevents us from performing in a professional manner.
Yet law is innately competitive, even antagonistic. We deal with difficult people, be they opposing counsel, a judge, a senior partner or even our client. The outcome we seek is often win or lose, with no middle ground. On top of that, we work long hours and are often exhausted.
Our ability to succeed as lawyers is directly related to our ability to handle anger in a controlled and measured manner, certainly in front of a judge, but also in front of colleagues, co-workers, partners and clients. When I was an associate and young partner, the leader of my team was a senior lawyer who had a lot of anger. It manifested in his impatience, irritability and rudeness — making the situation toxic.
It’s important to realize anger often flows from a feeling of insecurity, and thus serves as a defense mechanism. At first glance, anger can appear to energize us and make us feel powerful. Again, feeling and expressing anger is healthy when it’s managed in an appropriate way. But left unchecked, anger can wreak havoc on your life and those around you.
Getting Anger Under Control
The good thing is that anger management is a learned behavior. None of us are born knowing how to control our anger, but you can use the following tips to better manage the feeling:
Count to 10. It sounds cliche, but it works. It allows you to take a moment to reflect before impulsively saying or doing something you can’t take back.
Take a deep breath. Anger is part of our “flight-or-fight” response to danger. Breathing helps calm us.
Learn to recognize the onset of anger. This is one of the most important strategies for managing anger. You can learn tools to identify the signs so that when triggers arise and you start to experience warning signs in your body, you can prevent a blowup.
Notice your anger when it starts because it tends to build. Seldom do we flash to sudden anger. Resentment and irritation often develop over time before one final thing pushes us over our limit. There is truth to the expression “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Be mindful of the true source of any anger. “Transference” of anger is very common. It’s not safe to be angry with the firm’s senior partner, so instead we become angry with our junior associate. This happens unconsciously. If we train ourselves to be sensitive to the potential transference of anger, we will be easier on ourselves and colleagues.
Remember our duty as professionals. As lawyers, we must put aside our anger to deal calmly and professionally with the situation at hand. If you can’t fulfill that obligation, it’s important to seek support right away.
Defusing an Angry Client
The other side of practicing law is dealing with an angry client. People come to us because they feel they’ve been wronged, so it is understandable if they are angry. Sometimes, that anger might bleed over to them being angry with us. A good lawyer needs to know how to deal with an angry client, without displaying inappropriate anger back. Here are a few tips:
Let them vent. Don’t interrupt, don’t ask questions, and don’t show impatience. Sometimes just being heard is enough to defuse someone’s anger.
Practice active listening. Pay attention and let them know you are listening. Acknowledge what they say. Keep eye contact. Nod. Rephrase something they said and ask a follow-up question.
Don’t dismiss their anger. Your client could have a legitimate gripe with your work. If that’s the case, it’s important to talk through the concerns to ensure you’re aligned on strategy and next steps.
Meet face-to-face. The phone is a very dangerous mechanism for anger to get out of control because you miss a lot of nonverbal cues. It’s too easy to slam down the phone and walk away angry. If you can, make sure any potentially difficult or tense conversations happen in person.
Get to solutions sooner. The client wants you to fix their problem. Acknowledge their anger, but then move into a positive discussion to work to address the problem.
Set expectations at the outset. It’s a good idea to have a folder of materials to give to new clients when they sign the retainer agreement describing the parameters of the relationship, logistics, boundaries and expectations. This might include things like, “When you call and leave me a message, unless I am on vacation, I will call you within 24 hours.” Right away, you’ve set the expectation that there is no need to call five times in three hours to get a response.
Managing Anger Is an Important Learned Skill
Inappropriate anger is a problem that could hurt your career and your loved ones long term. You don’t want to take that chance. If you have problems getting your anger under control, there are places to turn for help, including anger support groups, coaches and mental health professionals. You might consult a lawyer’s assistance program that offers anger management classes. Check with your county or state bar association.