A Key To Helping Clients Make Better Decisions During Crisis

By Meredith Parfet and Aaron Solomon
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Law360 (November 24, 2020, 2:58 PM EST) --
Meredith Parfet
Aaron Solomon
When a business crisis hits, one of the first calls is usually to a lawyer. When that call comes, a lawyer needs to understand the emotional dynamic of a crisis and the particular energy it produces in order to fulfill their role as an adviser.

Crisis energy is particularly important to understand considering the growing second wave of coronavirus infections. Many individuals and institutions are already dealing with crises: home schooling, sick relatives, supply chain disruption, a rapidly changing regulatory environment and general uncertainty. A legal crisis that comes under these circumstances strikes when emotional reserves are at their lowest and institutional attention and bonds may already be stretched to the breaking point.

Lawyers cannot ignore crisis energy. Law professor Mark Aaronson observed that legal analysis "requires coming to grips with the complexity of real-life situations psychologically and sociologically as well as legally."[1] Lawyers who fail to understand the full scope of their client's situation may find that, as the comments to the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct caution, their "purely technical advice ... can sometimes be inadequate."[2]

What is crisis energy?

Crisis generates a form of energy that is a catalytic fusion of physical, emotional, spiritual, economic and temporal movement that leaves enormous change in its wake. Crisis energy can manifest itself as adrenaline, pain, worry, guilt or anger. It can even motivate existential questions: "Why me," "why this," and "why now?"

This energy is exacerbated by common physical components of a crisis, such as sleeplessness, increased cortisol levels and decreased time for exercise, as well as common emotional and spiritual components such as lack of connection with family and friends and feelings of fear, guilt and shame.

Crisis energy is like a hunk of uranium — unstable, difficult to work with, and holding the potential to cause great harm or accomplish great good. Like uranium, there are only three possible ways of handling crisis energy: Ignore it and wait for it to reach critical mass and cause a massive explosion, bury it deep underground where it is safe from explosion but where it will eventually poison everything around it, or harness its power productively.

People in crisis detonate energy when they direct it toward behavior that is self-destructive or destructive to others as a way of releasing the pressure crisis energy creates. Self-destructive crisis energy shows up in various forms of excess, such as overeating, binging and impulsiveness. This comes in the form of "a few drinks after work helps me relax," or "I'll just buy a new car because I deserve it."

Many people fall back on these types of escape behaviors periodically, but when they tip into habits, they can exacerbate the existing strain. Similarly, destructive behaviors toward others show up as outbursts of blame, vilification and righteousness: "It's not my fault, it's yours," or "if so-and-so wasn't so useless, this would all be solved."

This wrecks relationships, demotivates employees and partners, and rarely solves any underlying problems. Explosive crisis energy invariably makes a crisis even worse.

People in crisis bury their energy by avoiding it. With business leaders, buried crisis energy often comes in the form of statements such as "I feel fine," "I have too much work to do," or "it wasn't that bad."

People bury crisis energy when they are afraid of the pain, when they feel overwhelmed, or when they don't want to acknowledge the worst-case scenario. Burying energy, like uranium, works for a time but the outcome is always the same. The energy slowly leeches out. This leads to behavior like passivity, lethargy, misplaced anger or depression. Eventually, it becomes toxic.

Individuals can harness crisis energy when they affirmatively take control of it. Without a doubt, it is challenging work. Because it requires people to face their pain, it is somewhat counter to the natural human response. Like engineers inserting control rods into a reactor, individuals can govern the level of crisis energy they have by making positive choices about our behavior.

Choosing how much negative information to consume, utilizing practices such as meditation, and simply talking about our feelings to loved ones are very powerful acts. People use crisis energy when they set broad priorities and daily goals, ensuring that they are focused and constructive. They can also utilize the energy to take action on things we've put off, to do activities that bring joy, and to bring order to chaos.

Harnessing crisis energy, like becoming a nuclear engineer, takes study, patience and practice. Crisis energy is a rare and powerful thing. It might not be something you would choose to seek out, but when it is forced upon you, use it to power a city.

What can lawyers do?

First and most importantly, lawyers need to do the work to harness their own crisis energy. Lawyers can frequently be in a state of almost perpetual low-grade crisis that makes them particularly blind to their client's situations.

As attorney Chris Ritter wrote in the Texas Lawyers' Assistance Program report, "Ten Tips For Lawyers Dealing With Stress, Mental Health, and Substance Use Issues":

Lawyers are handed their clients' worst problems and are expected to solve them. They are supposed to be perfect or their reputations dwindle. If they make a mistake, it can be career changing or devastating to a client's life. There is little time to smell the roses, and when that opportunity comes, it is hard if not impossible to stop thinking about the fires which need putting out at the office.[3]

Lawyers who have normalized behavior such as berating staff and feelings of depression or resignation are poorly positioned to help clients wrestling with crisis energy.

A listening ear and the power of compassion are some of the most valuable tools a lawyer can offer a client who is attempting to wrestle with crisis energy. Lawyers are a rare safe space for leaders during a crisis due to the legal and ethical confidentiality that surrounds their conversations.

Being willing to take the time to listen to the stress and concern a client is carrying can go a long way toward helping them understand, take control of, and harness the energy of crisis.[4] Such a listening process is particularly important around major decision points, where it may help bleed off the energy that would otherwise lead to poor decisions.

Another important step that a lawyer can take is to minimize the amount of crisis energy they generate. The last thing a client who is overworked and under tremendous stress needs to hear from their lawyer is: "I need you to approve this in the next two hours," or "get me all of your text messages for the last six months."

During training, emergency medical technicians are taught that the emergency is over when you get there, because a qualified professional is on the scene. The same is true for lawyers, and they must convey that. A calm, structured and systematic approach to the needs of a legal matter will vastly reduce the amount of unnecessary crisis energy a lawyer generates.

One of the roles of an attorney is that of an adviser — and with an understanding of crisis energy and a willingness to listen, they will be able to help position their clients to make better decisions in a crisis.

Meredith Parfet is founder and CEO and Aaron Solomon is director of strategy at Ravenyard Group.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] Mark Aronson, "Thinking Like a Fox: Four Overlapping Domains of Good Lawyering," 9 Clinical L. Rev. 1, 8, (2002).

[2] ABA Model Rule 2.1 cmt. 2.

[3] Chris Ritter, "Ten Tips For Lawyers Dealing With Stress, Mental Health, and Substance Use Issues," Texas Lawyers Assistance Program (Available online at https://www.texasbar.com/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Wellness1&Template=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=30326).

[4] Allen E. Smith and Patrick Nester, "Lawyers, Clients, and Communications Skill," 1977 BYU L. Rev. 275 (1977) ("If [they] can think of nothing better to do, the lawyer can at least listen to the client . . . and mumble 'Mhm' now and then. Listening alone can communicate much to clients about lawyer concern").

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