By GASTON KROUB
One of the most anxious days in a home with young children is “Dentist Day.” In our family, we try to get it all over with as quickly as possible, and have the dentist see all the kids in consecutive appointments. What usually happens is that at least one of them needs some follow-up, either to fill a cavity, get sealants, or check up on the progress of a stubborn baby tooth that won’t fall out. On a recent Sunday morning, it was my turn to take my daughter for one of those follow-up visits. Thankfully it was not intended as a dramatic visit involving real dental work — just a quick x-ray to monitor the progress of a tooth, nothing more.
What struck me as I watched my daughter settle into the chair was how her demeanor completely changed — really from the moment we got to the office, but more starkly once she was actually sitting down in the chair. Even though she knew we were going to the dentist, and may have had reservations about what to expect, she was her usual active, engaged self on the drive over. But once we got into the office, I could see the anxiety creep onto to her face. Once she was in the chair, it was clear that she was concerned and uncertain. I did my best to deflect her attention, and the x-ray was finished in a moment. As dentist visits go, this was as easy as it gets, and her mood almost instantaneously improved as soon as we left.
The entire episode reminded me of something we sometimes take for granted as lawyers — in particular when we interact with non-lawyers, especially when they are on our turf. While we might be comfortable in our familiar surroundings, and convince ourselves that because we have nice well-appointed offices that non-lawyers will automatically welcome a visit, the truth is that very often we are overlooking the possible anxiety-causing aspects of the experience. Any good pediatric dentist knows the importance of making their patients comfortable, whether by distraction with toys or by having kid-friendly shows or movies on the screen. Since for many people dealing with lawyers is at least as uncomfortable as a trip to the dentist, we should be sensitive to our clients’ needs in this regard.
I am not saying that law firms should start springing for Netflix subscriptions for the flat-screens in the conference rooms. Just that we recognize that even a visit to a friendly lawyer can be an anxiety-inducing experience in a client. For example, every litigator knows the importance of preparing witnesses for their depositions. While the most important part of that process is making sure the witness is comfortable with their expected testimony and the substantive issues in the case, deposition preparation of clients would be lacking if the witness’s potential anxiety is not addressed. For that reason, it is important to acclimate the witness to their surroundings. If at all possible, that can mean preparing the witness in the same conference room where the deposition will take place, or at least one like it. The more of a dress rehearsal the preparation is, the better. Including the stage for the performance.
Likewise, it is not unusual for witnesses, and even less experienced lawyers, to have some anxiety in the courtroom. One of the best ways to deal with that anxiety is to have the witness or anxious colleague visit the courtroom before their scheduled performance — ideally on a day when court is in session, so they will have the ability to watch a similar proceeding to the one they are supposed to participate in. While nothing can completely diffuse the tension of an important hearing or trial, it is best if the participants are at least acclimated to their surroundings. Performance anxiety is not necessarily always bad, since if channeled properly, it can coax a better performance out of the person experiencing it. At the same time, there is no need to pile onto an already anxious situation, particularly when some simple planning can alleviate some of the fear of the unknown.