Helping Attorney Clients Get Into Therapy

Second to mental health providers and physicians, lawyers are the next most likely professional group to encounter clients experiencing significant emotional challenges. Family law attorneys regularly interact with distraught clients as individuals undergoing divorce must cope with numerous unique and often overwhelming psychological stressors as they transform their personal lives, including transitioning multiple key relationships, struggling with self-identity issues, managing financial impacts, rearranging living situations, and so much more. Clients commonly experience feelings of anxiety, depression, anger and/or guilt, all of which can similarly adversely affect their physical health.

This also holds true for attorneys that litigate clients’ mental and physical injuries as they too repeatedly interface with persons laboring to cope with both physical and psychological impacts from their injury and regain balance in their lives. Since the duration, complexities, and psychological and behavioral reactions by the parties involved in processes of marital dissolution or recovery from injury are unpredictable, it is important to ensure that those clients have sufficient emotional support so they can emerge from litigation with good physical and mental health to begin new and fulfilling lives.

Attorneys, regardless of specialization area, usually can recognize the presence of unhealthy feelings and behaviors when interacting with emotionally distressed clients, and in response they by and large strive to connect them with mental health professionals. However, such efforts often are unsuccessful for many reasons. This is a two-part article in which I present four strategies intended to increase the chances that your clients successfully obtain the psychological support they need. Part 2 will be delivered to your Inbox next week.

Strategy 1 – Be proactive by establishing a long list of competent mental health professionals, be they social workers, psychologists, or psychiatrists, to who you can refer your clients at a moment’s notice. There is a drastic shortage of qualified clinicians in Chicagoland, and therefore many clinicians’ practices are full and cannot accommodate new referrals. Clients requiring a quick consultation or those in crisis cannot wait for a clinician’s availability. Thus, ensure you have many referral options available.

Strategy 2 – Play an active role in facilitating contact between your client and the clinician. Where possible, reach out to the selected clinician in advance to explain the nature of and reason for the referral, as well as its level of urgency. Ensure that both the clinician and client have one another’s full contact information, and that each party is accountable to you to make the connection in a timely fashion.

Strategy 3 – In medical settings, when physicians refer a patient to a behavioral health professional, there is a 50%-80% chance that the patient will not show up for the first appointment. One way of markedly improving those odds is to provide a “warm handoff”, meaning an in-person introduction of the therapist to the patient by the physician. The rationale of the warm handoff is that the trust and rapport a client has in the physician can then be conferred directly to the treating therapist, thereby reducing any worry, resistance or stigma that might otherwise interfere with the client’s follow through in attending the intake appointment.

There is no reason to believe that the no-show rate for the clients you refer for therapy is any better than the rate for physicians. For attorneys, since the therapist is not co-located in or even closely situated by your office, an immediate in-person warm handoff usually is hindered. However, one instead can consider facilitating a warm handoff by scheduling a visit by the psychologist at your office with your client present or offering a virtual warm handoff such as a three-way phone call or video chat, allowing for a real time introduction of your client to the therapist. Applying this extra effort may increase the chance that your client will initiate treatment with the therapist.

Strategy 4 – As the full benefits of a warm handoff in building an initial bond between a client and a therapist continue to be researched, recent literature suggests that a critical factor in determining whether or not your client attends therapy is the time delay between your referral and the actual first appointment. In other words, if the therapist can see your client right away, within a day or two for example, and even if only for a phone call or brief visit at first, there is a much greater likelihood that the client will successfully engage in the psychotherapeutic services needed to help him or her successfully navigate a divorce or other litigation process.