- Active listening requires some practice and skill, but it adds a layer to your client relationship to ensure that they feel heard when you ask them questions about their circumstances.
As an attorney, your representation of a client requires you to be much more than an advocate. You are, at times, a counselor, a peacemaker, and a problem-solver. As you continually change your hat, so to speak, it is unlikely that your strategy from case to case will look the same in every instance. Taking a client-based approach and allowing your client to feel heard is often just as important as obtaining a legal remedy. Here are some tips for managing pro bono matters that might help with your everyday practice.
There are generally two categories of clients. Some clients use the legal system to further or fulfill their business needs. For them, much like you, engaging in a legal dispute is par for the course in their work life. It may be a business necessity, but it is not personal. But then there are those clients who need the protections provided by the legal system to protect their basic needs or human rights; clients whose involvement in a legal dispute is not voluntary or routine and far from their realm of comfort. For those clients, emotions are likely running high, and any outcome will impact their daily lives.
It is essential to note this distinction—between clients who use the law and clients who need the law—early on when interacting with any potential client. For all clients, setting boundaries is important. But for those clients who need the law, remember to consider your client’s circumstances in creating those boundaries. Not everyone has ready access to a computer, can answer a call at any time, or leave work during the day to meet with you. Communicate with them in the most effective way for them, even if it isn’t your usual method, or consider meeting with them outside your regular work schedule. Taking a nontraditional approach by tailoring your expectations to meet their needs can significantly impact developing a successful relationship with your client.
Allow your clients to tell their stories in their words. Often, what a client needs to get a resolution is to feel heard, and you are the first person in a position to make that happen. Take a step back to make sure you understand what the client is looking for before jumping into long and potentially contentious litigation. It is possible that once your client feels heard, the best resolution will occur outside of legal recourse—providing a self-determined solution is more effective than any legal remedy.
While it is crucial to make your clients feel heard, you also need to approach cases with a critical eye. Confirm the facts your client provides to the extent possible, rather than taking them at face value. It is common for clients to be stuck on one fact and bypass another, not understanding that the bypassed fact could be fundamental to the outcome of their case. Active listening requires some practice and skill, but it adds a layer to your client relationship to ensure that they feel heard when you ask them questions about their circumstances. The more your client feels heard, the more they will trust you with adverse facts.
If you find yourself approaching matters with a rigid uniformity, take a step back and consider more nontraditional means to ensure your representation meets the client’s needs and that the types of matters you are handling meet your needs as an attorney. While you may be an attorney, you can also acquire the skills to be a counselor, a peacemaker, and a problem-solver within your profession. Do not be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and try a new approach.