How to Stay Sane When Clients Sue
By Harry J. Lew
Car accidents. Serious illnesses. Natural disasters. Deaths in the family. These are all part of the human condition. Also part of being human is the belief that nothing bad will ever happen to you. As an insurance agent, for instance, you might tell yourself you’ll never get sued because you run your business “by the book.”
But what if you do get sued? Imagine your frustration, anger, and anxiety. In cases with big money at stake, these emotions might even intensify to the point where they disable you. Psychologists call the intense feelings that emerge during a customer dispute “litigation stress syndrome (LSS).” Have you ever experienced this in the past? Are you struggling now with it? Then read on to learn more.
The term litigation stress syndrome first emerged in the context of physicians being sued for malpractice. A team of Chicago psychiatrists and psychologists studied the emotional reactions of a group of doctors who had been sued and whose cases went to trial. Their study found that 97 percent of the respondents admitted to having a physical or emotional reaction to the experience. Sixteen percent said the trial was the most stressful thing about getting sued, while 52 percent said the entire litigation process was stressful. Large majorities of the doctors said they experienced feelings of inner tension (86 percent), depressed mood (80 percent), frustration (78 percent), and anger (70 percent). The doctors also commonly reported having irritability, insomnia, fatigue, headaches, and even gastrointestinal symptoms.
But that’s just for starters. Some doctor defendants had so much stress they suffered heart attacks or developed peptic ulcers. Sleeping problems were also a common occurrence, as were cases of stress making existing diseases worse.
The Physicians’ Foundation, an organization that consults with doctors on practice-management issues, found in a 2008 study that litigation was the third leading cause of stress in doctor’s offices, behind long hours and insurance problems. The main stressor? Being accused of not upholding a proper standard of medical care, a charge doctors found profoundly distressing.
Is LSS confined to doctors or can you get it also? We would argue the latter. That’s because the underlying dynamic is the same. An insurance agent or financial advisor can wreck just as much havoc (financial, not medical) on a client as a doctor can on a patient. When an engagement goes awry, clients can become as angry with their agent or advisor as patients get with their doctor. In some cases, the potential judgments for an alleged insurance or investment error can be comparable in size to a serious medical mistake. Finally, the feelings of disappointment, anger, and stress that financial defendants feel are similar to what physicians feel when a patient “betrays” them by bringing suit. In short, it’s reasonable to assume financial professionals such as you can suffer from LSS just as frequently (and as severely) as doctors do. Does this track with your personal experience or with the experience of your colleagues?
No wonder litigation sparks off-the-charts anxiety and stress. Many financial defendants have never been sued before, so they don’t know what to expect. Plus, even if they have been sued, the workings of the judicial system can seem unpredictable and even capricious. Add the fact that judges and juries will now control their fate, rather than the quality of their own business practices and professional decisions, and it’s easy to see how getting sued can produce emotional distress.
Also troubling is that fact that being sued threatens your . . .
- Client retention and referrals.
- Ability to book new sales.
- Online and offline reputation.
- Future licensing status.
- Long-term financial security.
But perhaps the biggest reason why lawsuits are so stressful is they assault your professional identity. By asserting you failed your client, a lawsuit can unleash feelings of shame and guilt. And when these emotions become too strong, you might be tempted to isolate yourself from your remaining clients, friends, and family members. The combination of negative emotions and withdrawal can drag you down into clinical depression.
However, litigation stress need not be this dire. You can avoid the worst impacts by managing your thought patterns and by taking good care of yourself during court proceedings. Here are some pointers to consider if you’re facing legal action (or know someone who is):
- Don’t take everything so personally. Sometimes “stuff happens.” Perhaps you recommended a product that underperformed during a period of market volatility. You sold the product by the book, but now the client is mad at you and wants to sue. In this case, one might argue you didn’t do anything wrong; the market just didn’t perform to the client’s liking. Beating yourself up about something out of your control serves no good purpose.
- Educate yourself about the legal process. If you’ve never been sued before, ask your E&O insurance claims adjuster and/or attorney to walk you through the process. Then focus on supporting your insurance and legal team as they work on your behalf.
- Reach out for social support. Don’t give in to feelings of shame or to the temptation to withdraw from friends, family, or colleagues. Continue with your work and personal routines, but also reach out to others for help. Don’t discuss the case with them, but rely on friends to bolster your emotions while the case unfolds.
- Take good care of yourself. If you have a personal exercise regimen, do not abandon it. If you don’t exercise, now may be a good time to start. Also try to maintain a healthy diet and to avoid the temptation to “medicate” yourself with alcohol or drugs.
- Strive to achieve an optimal work/ life balance. Don’t let your legal problems weigh you down so heavily that you give up your hobbies or other interests. The more you can put your lawsuit in its proper context, the more emotional resources you’ll have for dealing with it.
- Restore your sense of professional mastery and self-esteem. It’s not easy hearing a client thinks you failed. The natural tendency is to conclude you’re not good at your job. Fight that tendency by reminding yourself of the great work you’ve done for other clients. Also consider taking some college courses or starting work toward a new professional designation. The self-satisfaction continuous learning provides will help to offset the negative feelings of getting sued.
- View everything as a learning experience. It’s hard to consider something this disruption as a positive. But getting sued can be useful if it forces you to revisit your business practices and to reduce your E&O risks going forward.
- Remember, litigation may be more about the plaintiff’s mental or financial problems than about your competence. When viewed in that light, it becomes easier to accept that your only mistake may have been selecting the wrong client.
Finally, given the stress of getting sued, consider the value of protecting yourself with E&O insurance. The psychological strains of being a defendant are bad enough without also lacking a financial backstop should you lose in court. Do your psyche a favor and review your current E&O insurance policy to make sure your coverage limits are sufficient. And if you don’t have E&O insurance, get some soon. If you ever get sued, your sanity will thank you for it!