The Human Element: Developing Your “Deskside Manner”
By Michael J. Maslanka, Former Member Standing Committee on Group & Prepaid Legal Services and Immediate Past President, American Prepaid Legal Services Institute
As an attorney for more than 26 years, I have experienced innumerable occasions with clients when I have had to act almost as a social worker or grief counselor. Perhaps that is because I do a lot of family law, but that area of practice certainly has no monopoly on emotionally needy clients. With helping any client having legal problems, there should arise the attorney’s need to acknowledge the client’s “human element,” which becomes the “human element” of the relationship. Exactly how to do that is not taught in law school. We have to learn as we go. Clients come to us with questions, concerns, issues, and anxieties. During the representation, clients need to be told the good news and the bad news. How that news is conveyed to them is important for obvious reasons, not the least of which should be the attorney’s own professional, and hopefully personal, need to communicate clearly, timely, and perhaps compassionately with the client. Some news needs to be conveyed in warm, empathetic terms. Meaningful communication with a client that tells him or her that you care is satisfying, and it can lead that client to want to come back to you in the future for other services. It’s a no-brainer, in a way, but certainly worth talking about. A doctor’s bedside manner is often discussed, usually in the negative. As attorneys, we need to develop and polish our deskside manners.
Many clients come to attorneys after waiting too long to seek legal advice, and then want their problems solved immediately, if not sooner. So, why don’t you do that? Why can’t you? Shouldn’t this be the age of drive-through legal services? Immediate legal service satisfaction and gratification? But what can we do to ease the client’s disappointment upon hearing bad news? One tool I use when trying to explain to a client how long a case may take is to point to the law books on my library shelves. We keep a few decision reporters around for historical purposes and legal atmosphere, and maybe for some good karma. While pointing to them, I explain that they are all appeals. Someone lost a case and tried a second or third time to win. Some win and some lose, but they each took years. I go on to tell them that the wheels of justice can move slowly (I heard that one somewhere) but that I will do all I can as their “personal” legal representative to make sure that their case is not unduly delayed. I also explain that I can only control so much in litigation, and much of their case’s development will depend on what the other party and the judge do. From time to time I will even print a case opinion for them to take home and read, to highlight for them why some cases take so long.
I recently read an Illinois appellate court decision that I will add to my collection of cases to give to clients that demonstrates the potential of cases to take longer than one party might want: People of Illinois vs. Al Burei, decided on September 30, 2010. A defendant was indicted for transporting cigarettes for sale that were never stamped for tax purposes. The defendant was stopped by the police in July 2003. The case proceeded through the Illinois Supreme Court two times and the Illinois Appellate Court three times. The case raised the constitutional issues of unreasonable search and seizure, which, as of today, seven years later, was last decided in the defendant’s favor. Many personal injury and products liability cases have long shelf lives, too. Finding specific case examples to share with clients may help them understand that you help drive the course with them, but that you do not dictate how long it is.
Knowing when a client does not understand something may be obvious to some, but professional instinct may need to be involved, because some clients might never tell you that they do not really understand what you just said about comparative negligence or absolute liability. If you suspect a lost connection, restate your advice and recommendations. The client may be more appreciative than you will ever know.
Lawyering for some is just an occupation (something to do and earn income), but for most, lawyering is a profession (an occupation with aspirations and goals beyond monetary remuneration). The words occupation and profession are often used interchangeably, but the intent in using one word or the other makes a real difference. A profession is likely to have altruistic goals and a code of ethics. A meaning beyond the money. Most general practitioners around the country are true professionals. Their stories of pro bono work and donations to funds are endless. They realize that there is something else to the lawyering work besides the “paid in full” receipt the client eventually receives. It deserves mentioning that there is nothing wrong with earning a living and getting paid for hard work. Clients need to understand that, and lawyers need to understand that some clients need pro bono work, or reduced fee work, or perhaps just an ear to listen for awhile. The human element of the client can be addressed in many ways, such as declining possible interruptions while conferencing, offering a firm handshake, exhibiting a strong nod of the head, serving a hot cup of coffee, or asking sincerely, “How is your family doing?” Once the relationship has begun, the client and attorney need to help each other understand needs and goals. It is a two-way street, but the lawyer should take the lead to make sure all questions are answered and obligations are explained.
For those doing group and prepaid legal service plan work, the challenge to address the human element of the attorney-client relationship may be greater. Some plans direct call after call to a lawyer or firm. For economical purposes, that may be beneficial, but it does take a lot of time. Provider attorneys may struggle with giving each call or client a caring ear because there are so many. In that situation, the attorney should take a step back and decide if the volume of calls and cases is causing him or her to dilute the meaningful attention the attorney should give to each, as though it were his or her only call or case. Clients want that. They want you to be their attorney, and maybe your only case. We all know that is not possible, but we can act and talk and listen as though it were true. Some providers use paralegals and support staff to handle some calls and some parts of cases, which is fine. In the end, the client just needs to know that you truly have his or her case under control. Some clients will need more hand holding than others: that is just a part of the diversity of the collective human element of our clients. The profession dictates that we not work our practice as a factory, i.e. roll ‘em in, and roll ‘em out. We went to law school and took oaths to do more than that. Recognizing that we always need to do more will help us stay on the professional road.
For attorneys to meaningfully address their clients’ human element, I suggest the use, during conferences, of materials and visuals, like photos, books, case decisions, and charts of statistics, but, perhaps, most importantly, a caring ear to listen to every word the client says. Take a lot of notes. Listening may be the best tool. The attorney-client relationship can suffer irreparable harm if you ignore the human element, or if your client ever believes that you did not really listen to his or her story. Take that earful! It can do wonders!
Michael J. Maslanka is an attorney in the downtown Chicago, Illinois, law firm of Sacks, Goreczny, Maslanka & Costello, P.C. He has been involved in group and prepaid legal services for most of his legal career. He has been actively involved in the work of the Illinois State Bar Association for many years, and is currently a member of the Human Rights Section Council, and the Standing Committee on Bar Services and Activities. He is also Immediate Past-President of the American Prepaid Legal Services Institute, and a former member of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Group and Prepaid Legal Services.
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