As a pro bono volunteer, the challenges in representing low income clients consist of more than learning a new area of the law, or gaining experience in client interaction. Representing a pro bono client may be vastly different from a corporate client, and a major hurdle can be the socio-economic challenges facing a client.
Clients may struggle with financial, cultural, educational, and/or emotional barriers, requiring more foresight and sensitivity by the volunteer. Here are some tips for attorneys working with legal aid clients, on the phone, in a clinic and in a longer representation.
If you are working with a client on the phone in the Call4Law program or a more lengthy representation:
Be patient; try to explain clearly without "legalese" and without condescension. It is important for the client to understand what you are telling them, so you may want to repeat key points and ask the client to write them down.
Beware of the emotional response. Your role is to provide legal assistance to the client. We will provide you with a script to help explain your role with the client at the beginning of your call. Clients may often have a host of legal and non-legal problems, so it is important to be clear on how you can assist them, and that they may need to seek help beyond what you can provide.
Clients may be difficult to reach - their phones may have been disconnected, they may have literally just moved, have limited minutes on their phone, or have inconsistent work schedules. If we have them, we have provided you with any additional numbers that the client has given us. If you have trouble contacting a client, call us and we will see what we can do to help.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, let the client know that you may need to get back to them with an answer to particular issues. We can help you with questions.
If the client cannot speak with you when you first reach them, set up a specific time that is convenient for both of you when you can call back, and stress that if the client cannot make that time they should contact you as soon as possible to let you know.
Be culturally sensitive. Stress the confidential nature of your communications, as clients may fear reprisals from their ethnic community.
If you are meeting with a legal aid client in a clinic, keep these additional considerations in mind:
Meeting in person is a chance to build trust and rapport with the client. A thorough interview can uncover details or new information that they have not previously realized was important to their problem.
If domestic violence becomes part of the issue as you speak with the client, let us know and if you are not comfortable working with this, we can take over helping with the client’s problem.
If you are providing a client with representation or longer assistance with their problem, there are a few more considerations:
Go over the retainer agreement to make sure that the client understands your respective duties.
Clients may have difficulty balancing their employment, child care, and financial hardships with the tasks involved in litigation. It is therefore important to think ahead and be as flexible as possible.
Ask clients about the best times they can be reached, as well as their work schedule, in order to set court appearances during days off. This will lessen the impact on their employment, income, child care, and other key factors.
Give plenty of advance notice to clients for appointments, and if possible, you may want to remind them a day or two ahead of time.
Financial hardships may be a large contributor to communication and scheduling hardships.
If you need documents from the client, give her advance notice so she can bring the documents to a meeting for you to copy.
If a client has children, it may help with scheduling if they are allowed to bring their children along rather than trying to get child care.
For clients with disabilities or other hardships, you may want to limit the frequency that the client has to travel for meetings or court appearances. You may want to conduct phone conferences when possible, including reviewing documents or pleadings with the client over the phone, or give them extra travel time.
Some clients may also have a fear of litigation or public disclosure of their legal issues. In fact, they may not want to bring in third parties as witnesses even if it may help the case. Counsel the client about the potential impact on the case, but recognize that it is ultimately the client's decision.
Understanding the challenges unique to pro bono assistance can facilitate what can be a very rewarding experience, recognizing that advocacy means not just legal representation, but being an amplifier for your client's voice to be heard.
Thanks to Grace Newgard, Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services, and Illinois Pro Bono for allowing us to use their article as a basis for these tips.