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  • May 24, 2019

    How to Communicate Bad News Effectively and Compassionately

    In the May installment of the PILS Tip of the Month, Elisabeth Stockbridge offers some insights to help ease the process of delivering bad news to clients.

    Elisabeth Stockbridge

    In our daily work as public interest attorneys, we are confronted with the task of delivering difficult and unwanted news to our clients.

    Working with impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged clients means that our clients come to the table with many stressors in their daily life. Often, the deck is stacked against them legally as well, and we have the burdensome task of delivering all kinds of bad news.

    Elisabeth Stockbridge Elisabeth Stockbridge, U.W. 2009, is an attorney with the state Public Defender’s office in Shawano.

    How public interest attorneys communicate this difficult information can help clients prepare to hear that bad news and process it in a way that can help them move forward.

    In the January 2019 issue of Law Practice Today, a publication issued by the American Bar Association, Law Professor R. Lisle Baker and Oregon public defender Jennifer List gave some practical tips for delivering bad news well, based on evidence-based studies from the fields of medicine and positive psychology.

    As described in the article, using a three-step process to deliver bad news well also had a hidden goal of promoting the wellness of the attorney who is tasked with being the bearer of bad news.

    The protocol developed by List is broken into three parts: prepare, deliver, and follow up.


    Visualize how you will deliver the bad news, acknowledging that you may have anxiety about it as well. Acknowledge your anxiety but prepare to be present for your client.

    Try to choose an appropriate setting. If you must deliver bad news in a busy courthouse, try to find a less crowded area where you can give your client space. Sit next to, rather than opposite your client. If you know they have a person who supports them, invite them to be present, if ethically appropriate.


    • Briefly review where you are at with their case (i.e., you asked me to go to the opposing attorney to offer this settlement, etc.)

    • Provide a warning shot. Help the client be prepared to hear the difficult news by alerting to them that tough news might be coming. (i.e., “I need to explain where things are at, and I wish I had better news to tell you.”)

    • Be honest, and explain the news clearly.

    • Allow the client time to digest the information. Do not let your own emotions lead you to fill the silence.

    • Listen and acknowledge your client’s response. Try not to argue with how your client responds. Empathize with your client’s emotions.

    • Answer any follow-up questions your client may have.

    Follow Up

    • Come up with a plan with your client. Once your client has absorbed the difficult information, try to guide them to develop a plan going forward.

    • Advise your client about what will happen next in the process.

    • If your client needs additional time or space to digest the bad news, set a specific time and date for a follow-up meeting.

    • Debrief with a colleague yourself so that you can process your own emotions.

    Not only does preparing for these discussions, being deliberate in delivery, and following up afterward take into consideration the client’s emotions, but List found that being more deliberate in how she delivered bad news actually led to better outcomes.

    Often, clients served by public interest attorneys have been mistreated or not given the respect they deserve. We can help clients perceive the legal process to be fairer and more just by being more thoughtful and compassionate in the way we deliver bad news.

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    Public Interest Law Section Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Jacob Haller and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Public Interest Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2023 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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