My first legal internship was with the Eviction Defense Collaborative in San Francisco. Dozens of clients would come in daily with unlawful detainer (eviction) notices that needed to be responded to as soon as possible. The EDC is the largest eviction defense group in the city and they are doing absolutely heroic work. Each year, they assist over 5,000 tenants. So many people have been able to retain their housing because of the EDC. And so many more at still at risk.
During those days, I felt so much relief when tenants were able to stay in their homes. But I wondered about the longer-term strategy. What did their personal lives look like? How about their professional lives? How could they thrive moving forward instead of feeling like they were at the mercy of the justice system?
So far, I find one of the toughest parts of being an attorney is the reality that I cannot guarantee my clients will prevail on their claims. I started to wonder: what happened to clients beyond the obvious legal judgment entered in or against their favor? A small seed was planted back then about how to help champion clients beyond the perimeter of the legal system. Legalese can be cut and dry—looking at black letter law and not the holistic totality of each person’s circumstances and plight. I wanted to know more about how to leverage a client’s potential to move forward. To me, that seemed to be the essence of being a true advocate.
As I mentioned during last week’s post, I have already been so struck by the lack of legal help in our rural communities. That need is urgent and real. And these lawyers frequently have to take on multiple roles in order to be able to increase the chances of delivering justice for the client at hand.
Because there is such a lack of lawyers, it is arguable that impressing the need for a client to be able to defend him/herself is of utmost importance. Attorneys also need to take on the role of a coach: letting clients know you are in their corner—believing in their voice and their agency. It has really hit me during my time in Delano that we must empower our clients because the office isn’t able to take on every case for full representation due to capacity issues.
The hope is that tenants leave the office feeling like they are able to proceed pro per if need be (in California, this means the client will represent him or herself). And even if the office is taking the case on for full representation, clients still must feel they have a direct stake in their fate.
I am currently enrolled in an amazing social justice coaching program called Coaching for Transformation and during the first in-person weekend training I went to last November, I knew I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate coaching into the legal realm. I spent 4 months in San Francisco at Open Door Legal piloting a legal coaching program and saw some exciting results for clients: they were better able to organize complex and intense legal claims; clients felt more confidence in their own agency; they stood up for themselves in different proceedings; and they forged ahead in their personal/professional aspirations.
Here are some tips I can share based on my learnings of being a coaching attorney:
1. TALK FRANKLY ABOUT THE MERITS OF THE CLAIM
Certainly being truthful about the merits of a legal claim is part of an attorney’s duties. However, I’m talking about having a broader discussion about the adversarial system and making preparations for an outcome that may be adverse to your client. Some of the most groundbreaking legal coaching conversations came from me directly acknowledging life will in fact go on after the resolution of this legal claim (and as we all know, a number of legal claims can take months or years to resolve).
How is your client focusing on his or her life now and thinking about moving ahead?
2. ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THINGS SUCK
Often times, I know clients can come in and understandably be very focused on their stories. And again, for some of our communities we work with, those stories contain high-impact trauma. As I mentioned before, the legal process can be a way to keep reopening those wounds.
Over time, I learned the difference between someone needing to vent and someone taking it out on another person. The vast majority of the time, venting is needed. I would caution against making this a routine practice, but letting clients blow off steam for a minute or so helps clients feel like you, as their attorney, are in their corner. That you are listening to them. And then I would acknowledge their situation was very frustrating. Sometimes I even point blank said it sucked. And most of the time, I saw their shoulders soften a little and respond: “yeah, it does.” And I can tell the moment of empathy shared is one that builds trust and ultimately a stronger attorney/client relationship.
I remember I had a client who told me she never went back to her private attorney because he was intimidating and made her feel like nothing. And this was a woman who badly needed legal representation. Building these relationships matter—particularly with underserved populations.
How can we as coaches gently transition clients from focusing on story to life changing possibilities ahead?
3. ASK THEM HOW THEY ARE GOING TO TAKE CARE OF THEMSELVES
So, I am definitely not saying we should be caretakers of our clients—I realize that fosters an unhealthy codependence and the name of the game here is advocacy and empowerment. But in addition to asking and ensuring that the client was going to take care of needed legal deadlines, I would also ask how they were going to perform self-care for themselves. Maybe it was a walk around the park. Maybe it was turning their phone off for a few hours and watching their favorite show.
The whole point is there needs to be some semblance of space for clients to feel there is something of their own during a most vulnerable time. And them realizing they are in charge of their own agency.
How is the client performing self-care when reliving traumatic events is unfortunately a part of the legal process?
4. LATERALISM IS KEY
I have heard too many horror stories about clients being intimidated by those who are supposed to represent them. The whole process from start to finish can be absolutely terrifying and an unapproachable lawyer is adding insult to injury. In our country’s adversarial system, there is a lot of power tripping in the law—and attorneys can exert the leverage on that attorney/client relationship to remind the client (completely unnecessarily) of their power and status.
Lateralism is key, particularly for public interest attorneys who are trying to push back against the status quo. Again, the key is to aim for a relationship where the client truly is driving the car, and as the attorney, you are in the passenger’s seat. Sure, maybe it’s passenger’s seat “plus”—as we are professionals hired for legal expertise. But this is their claim and their livelihood at stake. Not ours.
How can we as attorneys be allies for our clients?
5. TELL THEM STRAIGHT UP THAT YOU BELIEVE IN THEM
Sounds obvious, right? Or maybe it sounds uncomfortable. When we as attorneys, and as coaches, call out the power we see in our client—we see this individual as a whole person—and not just how he or she may be at the hands of the justice system.
At one of my prior legal clinics, I had a client who broke down and said she was unsure if she could go on. Don’t get me wrong, I felt the fork in the road in that moment. Due to our professional relationship, I could have addressed it but quickly brushed it off. But I saw it as an opportunity. Another opportunity to champion the client as well as further cement the attorney/client relationship, trust, and bond. I told this client I believed in her and she had what it took to get past this situation—whatever the outcome of the legal case may be. I told her I saw her perseverance and her resourcefulness to make things work when there were few options.
After her case was referred out to another lawyer (it was a limited scope representation), she came by the office with a bottle of wine and one of the most sincere thank you cards I’d ever received—saying she would never forget how I showed up for her.
How can we call out a client’s power—even when the justice system may threaten to take it away?
This post was written by Melanie Gleason, former Open Door Legal legal coaching fellow. You can view the original post on Attorney on the Move, where Melanie is documenting her six month pro bono lawyering project across the country.