The Lawyer’s Compass: Beyond Justice: How to Give Your Clients the Fairness They Deserve

 In Learning to Listen, The Lawyer's Compass

While I can’t give my clients everything they want. I can give them what all of us are truly looking for— to be treated fairly. That’s one of my top jobs as an attorney. If I don’t, I’ve failed my client, society, and myself.

I can have a powerful effect on how my clients not only perceive fairness, but experience it. When I forget that part of my work, I steal the heart out of what it means to be a lawyer.

Last week I was talking to a gentleman who unhappy with the attorney representing him. I asked questions about how the collision happened, what his injuries are, where his claim is in the process and what advice he has been given. His attorney was giving the exact advice I would’ve given.

What I heard was his frustration about how he was being treated. He said… “I hardly ever get a return phone call. When I do get a call back it’s usually from his legal assistant. When I finally get to talk to my attorney, he doesn’t really answer my questions and I don’t understand half of what he’s saying. I don’t know what to do.”

I spent half an hour talking to him. My primary goal in the conversation was to make sure he felt heard, not just that I understood him.  You can’t rush fairness. It’s not about money, even though that can be an element. There’s no jumping to the end to make the process quicker. It’s about taking the time necessary for the client.

After about twenty minutes of talking we came up with a plan for him to set an appointment to meet with his attorney and a list of questions he needed answered.   

At the end of the conversation I asked if I’d been helpful. He said “You’ve spent more time talking to me than my attorney has for the last year. I understand why my case is challenging.”

It was the highpoint of my day. What was most important to me was his experience within the legal system, which I’m a part of.

Being a successful attorney is about more than the end result. It’s equally about their experience of getting there.

In my first internship in law school I learned that being a lawyer is much more than about being smart. Intelligence alone will never truly allow a client to experience fairness with in the legal system.  The lawyer I worked with was so smart. He knew the law and how to deal with insurance companies inside and out.  I always understood what he said.  He made sense to me.  The clients always appeared to leave with their questions answered and confidence in the process.  

The funny thing is after every meeting the clients would call me to ask what the attorney had said. Honestly, I was shocked. They appeared to be understand everything at the meeting. So, I’d take about 20-30 minutes on the phone to make sure their questions were actually answered and that they understood what what was going on with their case.

There are some important lessons I’ve learned about the idiosyncrasy of my clients.  They don’t want to appear stupid, talked to in a language they don’t understand. They all want to feel heard. They won’t always tell me if they’ve  understood what I’ve said. The only way I can find out is by asking probing questions, such as, “Did I explain that very well? What we are talking about is very complex and I sometimes don’t explain things as well as I should.”

Fairness is central to everything that we do for our clients. If we aren’t part of that process, then we’re part of the problem.  

The following is a list of questions every attorney can ask themselves to help their clients experience fairness.  

  1. Do they feel heard?
  2. Do they feel understood?
  3. Do they feel accepted for how they feel?
  4. Do they feel talked down to?
  5. Do they feel important?

Just because we are hearing the words our clients are saying, doesn’t mean we are listening to them.  

Paraphrasing what a client says and asking them if you’ve explained it well is the best way to insure that your client experiences fairness in the legal process. When a client  doesn’t feel really listened to it has negative effects on the relationship.

Confusion and uncertainty destabilizes not only your work together, but the relationship as well. It’s our responsibility to do everything we reasonably can to make sure our client feels heard, valued and respected by us. We play a critical role in our clients’ experience of fairness within the legal system.

What do you intentionally do so that your clients feel they are being treated with fairness?

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  • Bruce Bottini

    This is a great service to us all to keep the proper prospective in both life and the practice. Thanks Jim!

    • Jim Dwyer

      Thank you Bruce.

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