Please Stop. No, I don't think I will.
June 24, 2015 1:15 PM   Subscribe

In the vein of this question, but with a twist: how do I reframe and handle confrontation when I am required to instigate the conflict?

I am a lawyer and I sometimes have to tell people to stop doing something that is injuring my client (injure here usually being financial, not physical. Assume that these are reasonable requests (think copyright infringement) and the person is in the wrong). I expect pushback on these requests just because anyone with a lawyer will do that, but lately I am getting outright hostility and rudeness (including a threat of a disciplinary complaint). I'm also getting more and more pressure from the injured client to get tough with the naughty person. This results in me pushing harder on the naughty person and the naughty person becoming even more intransigent and belligerent.

The result is a great deal of anxiety for me and hating to deal with both the naughty person and my client. I feel like I am 5 again and my dad is yelling at me. This is more pronounced when the client or naughty person is a man (duh). How do I reframe this so it is not me thinking that they are really saying "you're in big trouble now, little lady"?
posted by tafetta, darling! to Human Relations (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It may be helpful, when that anxiety surfaces, to make sure your breathing is steady and deep and then to explicitly tell yourself that So-and-so is not your father, you are an adult, and you have the power now to decide how you want to handle the situation.
posted by jaguar at 1:25 PM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

If anything, you are the adult and they are the five year old having a temper tantrum. Not that dealing with that is fun, but reframing it might help you feel less anxious and more in control. So don't react to their attitude, its meaningless, let it blow over. Then you can consider if there is any substance to what they said, and dismiss/address accordingly.
posted by ghost phoneme at 1:34 PM on June 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

I always felt that reframing it as just doing your job, it is nothing personal, helped me be a hardass when I was in a managerial role. That does not mean you shouldn't have compassion, but if you can remember you are just playing by the rules (of the law) and they are not, then it might not be as personal and draining.

Just lay out the terms you need the person to live by, tell them the likely next steps you will take and then do it.
posted by AugustWest at 1:35 PM on June 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

Practice helps getting used to any situation. Another thing I find helpful is if it can follow a sort of preconceived script. Not all of the details have to match up, but if you can identify patterns across multiple interactions (with the same person or different people in similar situations), you can probably start to anticipate some of the beats and that can help you feel more in control of the situation.

For example, I used to bartend, and part of that job is sometimes having to kick people out of the bar, for a variety of reasons. Almost nobody goes quietly. There's almost always a phase where the person will attempt to plead their case, as if ever that particular scenario has ended with the person kicking out the drunk person or asshole to say "you know what, you make a convincing point, come back in and let me buy you another drink!" That bargaining phase was a definite marker toward the end of the kicking-people-out-of-the-bar script; once we hit it I knew that I just had to be firm with them that yes, you're really kicked out, and they would give up and go.

It also helps it feel less personal when you start to realize that it's just garden variety human behavior and you're essentially playing a role in a very short, boring play.
posted by axiom at 1:40 PM on June 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

Your tag says anger, but your question says anxiety. Is it both on your part?

In any case, AugustWest's advice is great. I suggest using it for both the offender and the client—at some point in this financial dispute, threats will have done all they can do, and it'll be time to file suit. It's unreasonable for your client to hire you, an attorney, in the hope that they can magically force compliance and payment through the fierce persuasive power of your words. Sometimes you have to go to the mat to get what's rightfully yours.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:40 PM on June 24, 2015

Best answer: Remember that neither the naughty person nor your client are talking to you as a person. Each of them is talking to you in your role in their life. Of course, the naughty person is going to make idle threats, of course your client is going to tell you you're not doing enough. That's their job. Your job is to not take it personally.

It's like a movie. In order for the credits to roll at the end, certain pre-ordained steps have to take place. They're really straightforward:

Client says "sic 'em!"
You say "stop it!"
Naughty person says "You can't make me nyah nyah!"
Client says "he's still being bad! Do something now!"
You say "I said stop it!"
Naughty person says "I'll tell the State Bar on you!"
You say "Okay, sadly, I'm now forced to file a lawsuit against you on my client's behalf."
Naughty person says "oh shit okay I'll stop"
Client says "I knew I was right all along!"

If you keep in mind that everyone is just playing their part, it's easier. Remember the old joke -- the difference between litigators and transactions attorneys:

On the phone, the litigator says "you asshole!" and then hangs up and says thoughtfully "I could live with that." On the phone the transactions attorney says thoughtfully "I could live with that" and then hangs up and snarls "you asshole!"
posted by janey47 at 1:50 PM on June 24, 2015 [25 favorites]

You are not a weapon. You didn't create the rules you're enforcing. It is not your job to punish "naughty people" in the name of justice. That's the job of the civil or criminal court. It is not your job to enact your client's "tough" vengeance by scaring the client's foes. That's the job of the civil court again (for monetary damages) or the job of the court of public opinion or of your client's God (for more metaphysical revenge).

Your job is to stop people from infringing on your client's rights and to get compensation for your client's losses when their rights are infringed upon. That's it. If you're doing your job, everybody else can fuck off (in a diplomatic way, on the client side). Consider having a gentle come-to-Jesus conversation with your client about what exactly your client wants versus what they can get (civil damages yes, public stoning and shaming no). You were hired to protect your client's rights; you are not a villain henchman to be deployed at whim. If the client doesn't trust you to do your job, they can get another lawyer.

You are a lawyer of steel, and yelling at you does nothing to change the laws you're enforcing, so the more they yell, the more you can dig in like a clam. (A clam of steel? This is not a good metaphor.) Naughty people are hostile and rude to you because they got caught breaking the rules? Fuck off, naughty people; it's not your job to teach them manners or care about their feelings. Client is angry because they want you to be tougher? Fuck off, client; it's not your job to be an emotional punching bag. The best part is that if necessary, you can feel anxious and/or cry and/or have emotions--and still do your job with competence and grace.
posted by nicebookrack at 2:24 PM on June 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I posted a comment a while ago that I think might apply to your situation. IANAL, but I think focusing on the the fact that you are not really having a conflict with the naughty person (although the naughty person obviously would like to make you feel as if you are) might help you deal with anxiety about the conflict.

You are merely conducting the pre-determined interaction between YOUR CLIENT'S RIGHTS and NAUGHTY PERSON. You aren't really involved, and keeping that in mind will help deflect the offender's attempts to transform a cut-and-dry legal transaction into a dramatic interpersonal conflict for their benefit.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 2:32 PM on June 24, 2015

IANAL, but I'm not aware of your job being other than communicating the consequences of continued behavior, backed up with C&D's, injunctions, or whatever. "Telling them to stop" isn't anything I've heard of a lawyer doing as much as describing the problem, filling suit, motions and whatnot.
posted by rhizome at 2:43 PM on June 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Mostly what Salvor Hardin said, but two things about this sort of conflict I find helpful:

- your job is not to scold the person or, through the force of your voice or body language, get them to comply. Your job is to inform them of your client's position, which presumably includes a future threat. Other than being diplomatic and professional about it, there is nothing about your tone or skill that truly changes the outcome, nor does the pushback change the outcome. "It's come to my client's attention that you're using their IP without authorization, desist by %date or %consequences."

From there it's a flowchart with two outcomes. They desist or you implement consequences. Even the consequence stage doesn't depend on some emotional power. Someone now has to serve them with some legal notice, presumably. Then the next step in %consequences, and the next...

If you don't have consequences to deliver, then I'd have pushed back on the client first. "What happens when they ignore the request?" If there is nothing they can do to the supposed transgressor, then there's a problem that it seems doubtful they should hire a lawyer for. If I were a lawyer, I wouldn't let people hire me to make idle threats.

I've had experience doing receivables collections, and have had employers say "get tougher." No such thing, really. You can dun more often, you can press a little harder (up to a point) on the telephone, but all you can be is an email or a voice on the phone. You can't go break their legs. All you can do is decide to sue for the bill. Not worth suing over the bill? Then there's no recourse. Doesn't matter what your "moral case" is. If your clients don't understand that, then you shouldn't let them hire you.

- the other thing that has helped me understand these kinds of conflicts -- the louder the person you're talking to is yelling, the fewer cards they have, and the more fearful they are. Suppose someone called you out of the blue and said they were suing you for copyright infringement, and you weren't infringing? Weren't even using the material in question? Or had written permission?Would you yell and scream? I'd just say "you're mistaken," and ask them to prove their point. Maybe send them your written permission. In fact, those blustering statements about having you disbarred, or whatever, presumably should feel about that way to you, as I presume you're not doing anything to get you disciplined or disbarred.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:49 PM on June 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: One of the most fascinating moments of my young life was when, at age 12 or so, I was being deposed, and I watched my attorney argue with the other attorney. They were just yelling past each other, without stopping to react to what the other person was saying. It was like both of them were acting as if the other attorney wasn't even there.

Then they settled down and I finished the deposition. It was as if nothing had happened. They fucking shook hands afterward! For all I knew, they were also planning their next golf outing!

Later, I realized that they were ignoring each other's attitude because it didn't matter. Only the facts mattered. The attitude was just window dressing. They were able to talk past each other because they learned to ignore attitude and hostility and laser-focus on their set of facts and their lines of argument. If one of them had stopped to be offended, to even allow offense to take place ... well, I suppose they'd think they'd lost something. So both of them just let the other guy's attitude just sail right over their head.

I am a lawyer and I sometimes have to tell people to stop doing something that is injuring my client (injure here usually being financial, not physical. Assume that these are reasonable requests (think copyright infringement) and the person is in the wrong). I expect pushback on these requests just because anyone with a lawyer will do that, but lately I am getting outright hostility and rudeness (including a threat of a disciplinary complaint).

So, what are the facts? Knowing that in some cases, the fact is merely your client's wishes. "Cease and desist doing XYZ, or else ABC will happen." This is just stating the facts, yes?

Hostility and rudeness are not facts. "Screw you, Briefcase McLawyerperson, we're going to do what we want to do." OK, then the fact here is that a) you issued a cease-and-desist, and b) the action was neither ceased nor desisted. Sounds like you're on to the next phase, which is ABC.

(including a threat of a disciplinary complaint)

Well, you're a lawyer. Are you really at risk of a disciplinary complaint? Is it just more hostility, or is it really actionable? What are the facts?

I'm also getting more and more pressure from the injured client to get tough with the naughty person.

Again, you come back to the facts. "You'd like me to get tougher. I hear you. Getting tougher means not just ABC, but DEF. Now, I can happily do DEF, but I must warn you, every time I've seen another client ask for DEF, this other thing has happened, and my other client didn't like it. Plus, doing DEF is going to cost you, because it will mean more billable hours for yours truly. Still want DEF?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:01 PM on June 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Speaking as another lawyer, I find it tends to be best to be neutral and talk about the behavior in terms of how it is being experienced by your client (versus labelling it.) I also think it works best when indicating legal action is being considered to phrase it as notice, not threat. And lastly, it helps to plan in advance with your client what the client is willing to do if the behavior doesn't end. For example, if your client is already on board with a protection order, I wouldn't argue with bad behaving person who is continuing to behave badly, I'd just file for one and get bad behaving person served.

Re the threats of disciplinary action, breathe deep and ignore them. They are truly just chaff. Bad behaving person has no claim against you and the bar will give a complaint very, very short shrift.
posted by bearwife at 4:10 PM on June 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh, just realized you specifically linked to that question, which makes my comment redundant, sorry
posted by Salvor Hardin at 5:21 PM on June 24, 2015

Best answer: How comfortable are you with the tone you're using to communicate these messages to clients? How comfortable are you with how you interact with your clients? Not very, it sounds like, if you feel like you're 5. What is your usual voice when you talk with other people in your life? Your language, tone of voice? I hatehatehate the "____'s can smell fear" line of reasoning, but in my experience the best way to be assertive and firm is to be 100% cool with how you're telling people "don't do that."

I agree with the folks who are basically advocating for reliance on an if-then/facts-based approach to this, but also remember that you really should speak in your voice. I call mine "Andy Griffith business casual." When I'm trying to be formal I'm worried about trying to be formal, not what I'm saying to you, and I wind up sounding like I have no idea what the hell I'm saying. When I'm informal and a little off-color-but-firm I feel more at home in the interaction. Could be that you're not comfortable with the tone you're using to have these conversations and so the words aren't carrying the same weight. Clients and opposing parties will still act like entitled idiots, but you'll be a lot more comfortable and effective when telling them that in a respectful and ethical way.
posted by good lorneing at 7:13 PM on June 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Ain't practice grand?

Seeing this from time to time. You have to document, document, document. Explain that if the person files a complaint against you then you will. If you document, every decent judge will find in your favor, which is by far most of them.

Second, you might have burnout. Take a few weeks off. Maybe I'm really talking to myself here.

Lawyer, not your lawyer, not legal advice, not client, just dealing with this crap is rough. Sadly, part of the job.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:31 PM on June 24, 2015

I think you'll ultimately find a tone that works for you and doesn't leave you feeling five. I see people taking different styles related to moments of confrontation. You'll come to find one that works for you. Do you have the opportunity to watch other people and get a sense of various approaches? Yours might be similar or different. This comment is similar to what good lorneing is saying about finding a voice that comes naturally, and learning how that voice says these things that need said.

Someone above also talked about how you'll get used to and categorize the arguments. It comes to feel like they're playing a song you already know, so you can zone out for two minutes and then play the tape you've found works best in that situation. There's definitely some trial and error involved. You will most likely get used to feeling like "the adult in the room" when dealing with lay people.
posted by slidell at 11:11 PM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Check your memail.
posted by mibo at 4:42 AM on June 25, 2015

I agree with bearwife: "Bad behaving person has no claim against you and the bar will give a complaint very, very short shrift."

IANYL and this is not legal advice. On these facts, your state bar will consider the source of the disciplinary complaint and will look to the actual relationship you have with the complainant. Complaints from people who are not your clients, and who are actually your clients' adversaries? These types of complaints are generally clearly seen by the reviewer as the sort reactive tantrums that are calculated to get some petty revenge on you and/or win a negotiation. Know your state ethics rules cold, and don't let such silly threats ruin your day. One of my old bosses who was a lawyer handled these types of threats really well: he would roar with laughter, and say "Well, please do your best to spell my name correctly on the form" (while still laughing), and then change the subject back to where he wanted the conversation to go before hanging up. Basically acting like he didn't give a shit. Again, this is not legal advice.
posted by hush at 10:34 AM on June 25, 2015

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