If you are embarking on a legal career you know that you will be dealing with clients. The area of law that you settle on may dictate the type of people you meet most often; for example most people seeking a divorce are rather stressed, whereas in commercial property or as an in-house corporate lawyer you are more likely to develop business relationships.
During a training contract, however, if you have the opportunity to spend time in different areas, you may well come face to face with types of vulnerability you’ve not experienced before. And even the most polished and formal of contexts can fall prey to stress and disagreement.
After all, every client is a human being. Human beings have good and bad days and the majority of clients are having a less-than-great day if they are seeing you, their lawyer. There are exceptions: signing the contract on a dream home or finalising documents for a new business venture are more positive activities and those clients may not even resent the fees they are paying to see you. But clients in most areas wish they were somewhere else.
Vulnerable clients are particularly common in certain areas, such as crime, mental health and public childcare law. If you train or practise in one of these areas you are likely to encounter:
- Child clients (the UN defines anyone under 18 as a child);
- Those with learning difficulties;
- Anyone living with a disability or serious illness;
- People with mental health issues including addictions;
- Clients who have grown up in the care system.
Clients who need interpreters also require special consideration but that’s a subject that merits a blog post all of its own – watch this space!
Additionally, the environment or circumstances surrounding your consultation may add to the client’s stress – and possibly your own as well! Police stations and criminal courts are busy, pressurised and sometimes uncomfortable places and the circumstances are never pleasant. Your client may be hungover, may have slept in a cell and may be terrified or furious. Clients attending consultations in civil courts are also likely to be frightened or angry, or both.
Add the challenges of a stressed, vulnerable client and an alien environment to the demands of a client interview and a lot is being asked of you. Not only will you need to take full instructions, analyse the matter and advise your client on the relevant law and their position, but you will have to develop a rapport in a short time, gain their trust and quite possibly calm them down. You will also need to explain complex abstract concepts to someone who may have difficulty understanding them.
Over the years advising clients in my role as a criminal defence solicitor, I have encountered all of the vulnerabilities I have described and more. My particular area of interest is child suspects (aged 10-17) but every client has his or her story and deserves a lawyer who will make every effort to provide legal advice and representation that is comprehensible and appropriate.
So how do we go about advising clients when there are so many challenges?
These situations demand something more than legal knowledge and intellectual agility: character. Some of us come to the law from other working environments and with some years of adult life behind us and this can be helpful, but any lawyer of any age can bring to a consultation a measure of empathy and a willingness to understand.
Empathy, not sympathy. You may hear a story from your client that is so horrific you find it difficult not to become involved, but this is something you need to avoid. Empathy means putting yourself in your client’s position so you can understand from a human level as well as a legal standpoint, but staying calm and emotionally neutral at the same time. Your client needs to know that you acknowledge their pain and you may need to spend a few minutes assuring them of this, but they also need to know that you are continuing to do your job in a professional manner.
Sometimes we deal with a case or a client that triggers a memory or an emotion within us. There may be a detail or even an entire matter that reflects something painful from our past. Worse still, we may be dealing with something personal right now that is similar. We need to stay calm. Acknowledge the emotion to yourself but don’t discuss it with your client. Accept that this consultation will be a difficult one for you but remember that the next one will be something different and is likely to be easier on you emotionally.
If the client is very angry or upset you will need to listen to their concerns but at some point you will need to take charge of the consultation and make some practical headway. If the client wants to tell you their story straight away it is often – not always – a good idea to let them blow off steam and then diffuse things by making sure you have all the right personal details, times and other neutral information in your notes. Sometimes I make a point of redirecting my client’s focus by asking them these questions and then we can move on to taking instructions.
If your client has a vulnerability that you are not familiar with, ask questions. For example, with a learning difficulty, you might ask your client how it affects them. Addicts will often tell you anything you need to know about their substance use. Don’t pretend to know anything about drugs that you don’t already know; they will see through you. With a child, have a little chat about school or some other neutral subject to enable you to gauge their level of understanding. A parent can help you with this but in some situations the other adults involved will be as new to your client as you are.
Don’t use long words or legal jargon, except where you have to, and always explain these terms. If you deal with children or other vulnerable clients frequently, you will develop your own approaches to explaining legal concepts that are appropriate and as easy to understand as possible.
Learn from other lawyers. I was fortunate to be trained by experienced solicitors who showed me not only how to practise law but also how to do my job with empathy and understanding.
Realise that although it may not be easy at first, like anything it will become second nature. Now, when I know that the client I am about to see is a child, for example, I am pleased because I know that I am well placed to advise and represent them. The challenge of combining knowledge and expertise with the qualities of calmness, confidence and empathy is particularly satisfying. Whether or not the client is grateful, when you have brought all of yourself to your job – not just your learning but your depth of character as well – you know you have made a real contribution.
Underpinning all of your effort and experience there must also be a culture of self-care. These consultations can be draining and you may feel stressed or resentful. You need to make sure you have the resources to off-load and the ability to summon real calmness, rather than a pretence of self- control. The more emotionally draining your working situation, the more important it is to look after yourself, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Everyone must find their own path, but please don’t neglect this important consideration. If your job is to ensure that some of the most vulnerable members of society are afforded their rights, you are doing something important and you need to make sure your well=being is supported.
© 2015 Harriet Stack
Harriet Stack is a writer and meditation coach and practises criminal law under her married name, Harriet Balcombe. She can be contacted at http://www.harrietstack.com, @harrietewstack or at https://www.facebook.com/harrietstackmindcalmcoach.