Perhaps the toughest part of a family lawyer's job is dealing with clients' emotions, said ABA/APA conference speaker Sanford Portnoy, PhD, in a session on handling difficult clients in high-conflict divorce and child-maltreatment cases.

Clients in these cases face family disintegration, and, as a result, "Nowhere are clients more difficult," said Portnoy, who, as director of the Center for the Study of Psychology and Divorce at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, has been studying the lawyer-client relationship. In family law, attorneys must consider clients' psychological distress as they prepare them legally, Portnoy noted.

For example, negotiation skills are key in work on child abuse and neglect cases, said another session presenter, Washington, D.C., lawyer Donald B. Terrell, JD. Such cases usually involve mistrustful parents whose children the state has removed from their care.

"Most times these parents are very upset, and you need to help them navigate the system in a way that doesn't cause them [or the child] further harm," Terrell said.

Portnoy has adapted his research results to help attorneys with such emotionally charged situations. Based on his experience, Portnoy offered advice on how attorneys can foster client relationships and keep clients calm during potentially combustible moments.

Specifically, he advised attorneys and other court-associated professionals to:

  • Build alliances with clients. Use inclusive phrases with the words "we" and "you and I."

  • Clarify roles and proceedings. Spell out who you are and what you plan to do for the client, using examples of likely legal events from similar past cases.

  • Simplify communications. Share small, digestible units of information. Avoid discussing emotionally charged information when the client is upset.

  • Define and repeat. Explain, repeat explanations and ask clients to repeat them back to you.

Then, to keep clients' emotions in check, attorneys need to:

  • Stick to the point. Keep the client on task by updating information, summarizing key words and phrases and providing written summaries. Another option is scripting what you'll say.

  • Set limits. Ask focused questions that keep clients from rambling into emotional territory.

  • Deny special requests. Don't meet clients off-site or after hours or bow to their requests for frivolous legal motions.

  • Manage transference and countertransference. Address and quash inappropriate client behavior toward you. Do the same in the reverse instance.