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Talking to clients in distress

I was caught off-guard by her crying. I'd been working with this client for the better part of a year at a legal aid clinic for injured workers, and despite a difficult prognosis, she was always upbeat and determined. But one day, during our weekly phone call, she broke down. Her father had recently died, she explained, and she was devastated. And I had no idea how to respond. Offering sympathies seemed useless; trying to get her to reminisce about her dad seemed intrusive. It got me thinking – what is one supposed to do in these sorts of situations, when a client is weeping or shouting or even shell-shocked? How involved should law students be in their clients' non-legal issues?

"I ran into this problem all the time," says Lily Chapnik Rosenthal, a law and social work student at the University of Toronto, who volunteered at Pro Bono Students Canada’s Family Law Project.

One of her professors advised her that lawyers should take the time to listen to and validate clients’ non-legal problems, but then move on to the legal task at hand.

"It makes [the clients] feel heard but at the same time, you should be focused on the task you're doing. It's not your job to be their therapist, it's your job to be their advocate,” she says.

Validating a client's problems can take a variety of forms, but essentially, it's acknowledging their concerns as legitimate.

"To be honest, I found that a lot of the time in Family Law Project, no one has ever said this to them. No one has ever said; ‘It sucks that you're not able to pay your child support,’ or ‘I'm sorry that your ex is causing trouble on the custody issue.’ And sometimes it's really all they need to move on. They feel validated and you can go on to your next question,” Rosenthal says.

Kate [name changed], a former staff lawyer at an Ontario legal aid clinic, has worked with several clients who were upset or frustrated, whether by the slowness of the justice system or by problems in their personal lives.

"When you go to a legal aid clinic, a lot of things have fallen apart," she says.

To make the process easier for clients, she suggests considering any physical or mental health accommodations they need, including arranging meetings and hearings well enough in advance that rescheduling isn’t problematic. But most importantly, law students and lawyers should build trust with their clients through keeping their word and always being upfront, even about bad news. That way, clients see you as someone looking out for their best interests.

When a client does get upset during a meeting or phone call, law students might try giving them a chance to regroup by offering a short break or a glass of water. Kate advises continuing with the conversation only if you think you’re moving forward, which could look very different in a narrative-driven intake meeting and during the final conversation before a hearing.

For clients who often direct the conversation to their non-legal concerns, asking more closed-ended questions can be helpful, as can giving them a time boundary at the start of a call.

"If you cue them in advance, they take it better -- it's not like you're cutting them off, you've given them notice,” Rosenthal says.

She also notes that law students and lawyers, especially those working in family, criminal and personal injury law, should take care not to delve too deep into a client's painful past.

"If your job isn't to be their long-term therapist, it's really important that you don't open up too much trauma for them. You don't have the capacity to work through it with them.”

A client who keeps talking about a trauma they experienced might be trying to process it while doing so, and a lawyer getting the details necessary for an affidavit isn’t in a position to help them do so.

"So redirect the conversation,” Rosenthal says. “If you're a lawyer, your job isn't to rehash someone's trauma. You want to gather the necessary facts, validate their experience and move on."