Q&As

Rachel King on Managing Grieving and Difficult Clients and Conflict: The Neurobiological Perspective

Monday May 14, 2018

Rachel King is a uniquely qualified specialist who acts as a conduit between the academic world of human sciences and the commercial world. Rachel provides expertise in the translation, education and application of the complex neuroscientific research and concepts that both the law and business are increasingly expected to interpret, evaluate and apply.   

Rachel King

Legalwise Seminars interviewed Rachel about the challenges and opportunities in the sector today, and you can read the full Q&A below.

Can you tell us a bit about your practice?

I work across a diverse range of professions bringing learnings from neuroscience out of the lab and into everyday legal and business conversation and practice. My passion is sharing existing and emerging evidenced-based neuroscientific knowledge to educate, upskill and ultimately improve practice, in the commercial world. At the core of my work, is the human experience from a biological, psychological and sociological science perspective.

For the legal profession the services I offer are diverse and include working with lawyers to extract key information from complex neuroscientific material, translating and communicating the key points into simple terms to inform an educated understanding about causation, illness or injury. This process also aids in the identification of the most suitable expert for a particular case. Other services include education about the neurobiological and psychological underpinnings of both mental health and mental illness, the impact of stress on cognitive performance and the factors that protect and optimise mental capital of individual’s and firms.

In today’s innovation-driven, knowledge-intensive economy, people increasingly work with their heads rather than with their hands. I believe that progressive organisations and leaders who understand the workings of the human brain and incorporate this knowledge into their services and cultures, have a competitive edge.

Your topic will cover ‘Managing Grieving, Conflict and Difficult Clients: The Neurobiological Perspective’, Why is an understanding of neurobiology important to the law and legal professionals?

An understanding of neurobiology is important for everyone. Neurons are cells of the nervous system that communicate with each other and send information around the body. The human brain is just part of the body’s nervous system however because it holds the key to mind and behaviour it is, in many ways, given a special status.

The scope for applying what science has discovered about brain structure and function over the past few decades to the law in areas such as litigation and evidence, contract drafting, mediation and negotiation, is considerable. However an understanding of neuroscience and various branches such as neurobiology, also provides lawyers with insight into both their own and their clients thought processes, how to shape their own behaviour and better understand their clients.

More broadly, the law is concerned with regulating human behaviour and while human behaviour is a function of numerous interactive influences, neurobiology can help provide a much deeper understanding of it, providing benefit to the legal system both in and out, of the courtroom.

Where and how does an understanding of neurobiology benefit a law practice?

An understanding of human neurobiology is beneficial to all aspects of legal practice and across all areas of law. The skills needed to foster and maintain relationships with others, whether they be colleagues or clients, is essential to a successful practice.

However long hours, excessive workloads, an often adversarial environment, insufficient sleep, missed meals, demanding bosses or clients, lack of support are all forms of stressors that can trigger the stress response and the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. These stress hormones, along with accompanying changes in cerebral blood flow, actually disable the higher-order brain functions needed to manage ourselves and our clients optimally and can result in damage to relationships, with both colleagues and clients as well as impairing quality decisionmaking ability.

Research has also shown that increased self-awareness, emotional selfmanagement and emotional competency is linked to a reduction in perceived and objective (lower cortisol secretion) stress. Identifying triggers, our own and others where possible, along with knowledge of the biochemical processes that follow, helps bring them to conscious attention. Once conscious, we are much better equipped to access and employ our high-order functions such as perspective taking, reasoning and empathy to problem-solve reflectively and effectively not reactively and habitually.

Why are boundaries important?

Emotions are contagious and whilst we are designed to deal with temporary exposures to those that are energetically draining such as grief, fear, anxiety or anger, frequent or chronic exposure can disrupt our own emotional balance.

Emotional depletion can result and lead to serious issues such as dysfunctional lawyer-client relations, stress and physical and/or psychological unwellness. Negative affect or emotions are thought to represent the principal pathway linking psychological stress to diseases.

Establishing clear boundaries in lawyer-client relationships and managing expectations from the outset, can protect both parties. Giving conscious consideration to where a lawyer’s role starts and importantly, where it ends and communicating this to the client, respectfully and confidently, lets the client know what to expect from the professional relationship. Additionally, it can be used to discuss where the client can source professional support for needs outside of these boundaries, a valuable client service function and importantly provides the lawyer with some certainty, predictability, autonomy and control, important protective factors against stress.

Why does client depersonalisation happen and what tips you would give legal practitioners to prevent it?

When boundaries are breached by clients who are overly demanding, critical or emotionally draining, exhaustion can follow. Defensive coping strategies are typically employed, usually unconsciously, to protect mental capital or wellbeing. One of these is depersonalisation as a way of stemming the emotional energy being invested in the client and gaining some emotional distance from the non-rewarding relationship.

The catch here however is that the client, picking up on this distance, becomes more stressed/distraught/demanding, and the problem can intensify. This increase in intensity further drains the lawyer, potentially leading to avoidance strategies or conflict which reduces capacity for empathy, leading to an increased risk of client complaint.

The setting of clear boundaries up-front as discussed, effective communication skills, and referral to other professionals such as grief counsellors, mediators, or forensic accountants, can help manage the problem of displaced problems and emotions being targeted at the lawyer and can be extremely effective in preventing burnout and depersonalisation.

What is one simple strategy that lawyers can incorporate into their firm/practice right now to help manage conflict?

Recognise it, identify its source and what contribution, if any, you may inadvertently be making to it. Decide if resolution depends on discussion with the party or parties involved or whether it can be resolved by working through it with a neutral person. Professional mediation or conflict coaching services could then be employed, or if the conflict is less serious, a trusted colleague or friend could act as the neutral person.


Rachel previously spent more than 15 years working in the financial markets for Australian, American and European investment banks, both domestically and offshore.

She holds a Master of Education, (Educational Psychology) from UNSW and is currently completing a second Master's degree in Brain and Mind Sciences at Sydney University Medical School. Rachel is also a nationally accredited mediator, conflict management skills and performance coach and an individual EAP provider with an extensive knowledge of the impact of stress on performance and mental health.

Learn more from Rachel at the seminar Wills and Estates Masterclass: Elevating Your Practice in the Primus Hotel Sydney, Sydney on Wednesday, June 06, 2018.

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