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As lawyers, we get so familiar with the areas of law in which we concentrate that we can forget the matters we’re handling are often uncharted and scary territory for our clients. But it needn’t be that way—if you prepare an outline of the terrain.
Every summer during my grade school years, my parents and I would pile too many suitcases on top of our Volkswagen Beetle, grab the Kodak Brownie and head for Mexico. This was in the early ’60s, before interstate highways replaced the spider web of local roads that crisscrossed the U.S. and GPS rendered Scotch tape-patched, accordion-folded road maps nearly obsolete. We didn’t always know exactly where we were headed, but we always knew what was ahead because we had that era’s secret weapon for travelers to Mexico: a Sanborn Guide.
The Sanborn Guides were painstakingly detailed, mimeographed booklets that provided travelers with a narrative of how to get from here to there. They carefully described the roads, which sometimes weren’t numbered, and included details such as how many miles to the next turn, the nearest gas station, and when to watch for potholes in certain locales. We never felt afraid, even in a foreign land where we didn’t speak the language, because we had the Sanborn Guide. Your clients, too, could use a handy narrative to guide them through their legal matters.
Be it a divorce or personal injury case, business litigation, or a matter before an appellate court or regulatory board, the terrain of a legal matter is like second nature to seasoned attorneys. We know where the courthouse is, have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen when we get there, and don’t usually think twice about the process. But our clients are usually not familiar with how their particular type of matter will progress—which can make them anxious, emotional and sometimes difficult to work with. And remember, a fearful client is much more likely to be an unhappy client.
That’s why at the beginning of every case you should do a few things to give clients a road map of what’s ahead. They’ll feel more secure, and it will make your job a lot easier, too.
Laura A. Calloway is Director of the Alabama State Bar’s Practice Management Assistance Program.