Under pressure

06 June 2016 By Bob Murray
Bob Murray

As stress ramps up in the workplace, both lawyers and their clients may be feeling the effects, writes Bob Murray.

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, crazier," 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, perhaps, 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.


My interest in workplace stress is personal as well as professional, since I serve on 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 reckoned to cost US businesses over US$1 trillion a year in lost productivity and other costs.

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), as well as a number of serious physical illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, fibromyalgia and some cancers. The demands that are placed on employees (and on 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 per cent by 2020. 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 behaviour – bullying (including cyber bullying), 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.

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A study published last week found that the stress of having to be always there for the client or the customer leads men and women to bully or harass their co-workers or staff. Yet workers are constantly being told that they must be more client-centric (whatever that means). Of course, this is a problem in law firms as well 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 weeks 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’re having firm boundaries will increase the client’s sense of relational safety.
• 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 solicitor/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. These steps will also help you keep your own stress levels under control, which may be the most important thing of all.

Bob Murray is the principal at consultancy Fortinberry Murray and co-author (with Dr Alicia Fortinberry) of Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership.

Under pressure
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