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February 15, 2020

Why collaboration is key when working with other professions

In working through a range of client-legal issues, a panel of lawyers and social workers agreed in a discussion on Feb. 14 at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting that collaboration is critical, but they also concurred there is no template or single formula for success.

But the lawyers stressed one theme, in particular: Given the regulatory legal framework, including client confidentiality, the lawyer and the client must have the last word in working with nonlawyer professionals, such as social workers.

“Ultimately, it is the lawyer’s decision,” said Richard LaVallo, a lawyer with the Disability Rights Texas.

The program, “We Don’t Need to Carry the Work Alone: Interdisciplinary Collaborations, was part of a medley of continuing legal education programs organized by the ABA Center for Public Interest Law at the Midyear Meeting, which began on Feb. 13 and concludes Feb. 17 with the all-day House of Delegates session.

LaVallo expressed the most cautious position of the four lawyers, at one point saying, “I don’t collaborate.” He explained that as a lawyer he has many obligations when working with nonlawyer advocates who need to be educated on “what information you can share and what you can’t.”

Areas of intersection include death penalty representation for indigent defendants; homelessness; disability rights; and immigration issues, particularly as they relate to children at the Texas-Mexico border. The ABA has a growing border program, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, known as ProBAR, which provides pro bono legal services to asylum seekers detained in South Texas by the U.S. government. The project recruits, trains and coordinates the activities of volunteer attorneys, law students and legal assistants.

Brenda I. Piñero Carrasquillo, ProBar’s director of programs, said its social work staff has grown rapidly thanks to grant funding, and that it is important for lawyers to take “a step back to listen” to staff. She also said it is critical to “promote a lot of team-building and respect for what everybody at the table brings to us.”

ProBar has benefited from the turmoil at the border and Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigrants. “With crisis comes a lot of opportunities,” she said, citing the influx of children seeking asylum and the increased funding from grants. “Don’t shy away from opportunity because it is will mean additional work. … The return on investment can be very high.”

Jayesh Patel, president and managing attorney for Street Democracy in Detroit, said his organization, which provides representation for people experiencing homelessness, found it necessary to work closely with social activists. In many first encounters with clients, the residents of the streets did not show up for a second meeting. Street Democracy reduced the problem, he said, by working with social service providers who “know who is ready to be helped.”

That concept was emphasized by Richard Barinbaum, a nonlawyer and lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. He said there is “no one way to collaborate” and both lawyers and social workers, for example, have specific ethical and regulatory concerns to abide by.

“There is no perfectly nice neat way to wrap this up in a bow,” he said, suggesting practitioners in both professions “decide first what is needed (for the client) and then make the rules to make it work.”

Emily Olson Gault, director of the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project, touted the team approach, saying the best legal team has a lawyer, an investigator and a mitigation specialist to develop a personal narrative.

“The focus is really on helping the jury understand who your client is as a person to ensure you are able to present a picture of your client as a person…separate from the crime he or she alleged to have committed,” she said. The mitigation specialist, for example, seeks to find trauma or mental illness to help the client and his or her family “understand why we are looking for this information and how we are going to help them.”