July’s blog is about advising clients about ‘bad news’ by Mike Willis*
The skill with which a bad news story is told to those who need to hear it is always critical. Sharing it with a client requires a fine balance between transparent report of what they need to know, whilst avoiding gratuitous admissions, disparagements of self or a colleague, or defensiveness. It’s vital to know the difference between what is known and what is feared, or supposed, and not to say things which may not be accurate, or conceal critical information.
Most clients will not welcome being told about a problem and the inconvenience – and usually costs or delays – of having to confront options prematurely, before the spectrums and relative values of those options is apparent. Explanations which are over-indulgent in confession, excuses or attributions of blame to others, and exaggerated damage speculations, are rarely helpful and are more likely to trigger disproportionate recriminations or expensive engagement of new advisers before, or without ever, becoming necessary.
Delay is sometimes a useful tool, but not unless it is understood and managed: often there are opportunities to correct a mistake, or at least mitigate the damage. Of course they all have a shelf life and bad news should not be suppressed too long; but equally the hurt is always moderated if information about a ‘gone-wrong’ is accompanied by positive plans for controlling or curing the problem.
– Assemble all available information before the problem is described to the client;
– Ensure the bad news is communicated by the most senior or authoritative person in the firm or team;
– Have a clear route map and make recommendations for what the client must do next, in his best interests, not the firm’s;
– Stay objective.
– Confess to anything which is not yet known for certain;
– Cause the client anxiety expense or commitment until it is known to be necessary.
Mike Willis Ltd Solicitors are professional risk lawyers who help professionals or their clients to resolve their professional indemnity, regulatory, contractual or reputational problems.