September 01, 2013

How to Be a Successful Parent's Lawyer

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

How can a parent’s lawyer succeed in every child welfare case? Professor Martin Guggenheim, New York University School of Law, answered the question at the opening plenary of the ABA Third National Parent Attorneys Conference held in Washington, DC July 10-11, 2013.

Be there for your client. Treat your client as a person who needs you to be there fully, attentively.

Empathize with your client. When meeting a parent client for the first time after the client’s child has been removed, make the first thing you say: How are you? I know you have suffered a horrible crisis and I can only imagine what you’re going through right now. How are you holding up? That takes about seven seconds. 

Stand out from the crowd. Earn dignity and respect by giving, by showing.Be a champion. Help your client live the life he or she wants. Give your clients the real feeling that there is someone who will stay there by him or her—someone who is real, who cares, and who will fight hard to help that client achieve her objectives.

Listen to your client. The value of listening to your client cannot be overstated. Make your client feel that someone is in the room listening, not judging, not telling the client what to do, just listening. 

Defy stereotypes. Our clients do not expect a good experience when they interact with us. Don’t be “one of the punishments” that a parent receives for being accused of a crime.  Absorb the truth of the claim that we’re “unimportant low-level, state assigned, at a salary that important lawyers shun, working in a courthouse that important people pass by as too dirty, overcrowded and disgusting for them to enter.” Make it your duty not to behave like low-level state bureaucrats. 

Be your client’s ally. Your client’s capacity to achieve their objectives largely depends on their behavior after you’ve met them. Help influence that behavior, not by telling them how to behave, but by strengthening their resolve that they’ll survive this nightmare because they were fortunate enough to get you to be their ally and their comrade. 

Always behave well. This will guarantee success in every case. Many times we represent people who will not achieve their objectives. There is an intrinsic human right that we can advance if your clients can feel their inability to achieve their objective had nothing to do with your efforts. It is important that they know you tried and that you cared for them; that can help them overcome the obstacles. 

Make your client want you to be their lawyer. Be there for your client, answer their questions, and make time for them in your busy life. Always behave in a manner towards your client that you know will contrast with others who interact with him or her.

—Claire Chiamulera, CLP Editor