Reflective Response on Thinking About Client’s Feelings — Suggestions for Progrms and Funders to Address Issues

I am posting a response (with permission to do so without attribution) to the recent blog about thinking about litigants’ emotions.

Thanks for raising this. I think that a lot of a lawyer’s inability to deal with emotions starts in law school, where we are taught in our ethics classes, sometimes in clinicals, and core curriculum that we are operatig in a silo, the legal silo. As such, if we “spot” the non legal issue we may address it and make a referral, or ignore it. A lot of people think the proper thing to do is ignore it because law school did not give us the tools to address client feelings and we worry about malpractice, doing and saying the wrong thing.

We are conditioned to wash ourselves out of the discomfort that dealing with emotions and the effect our words have on the human being sitting with us.

Then, when we set up our legal delivery system we continue the fallacy or fantasy. We don’t bring in social workers nor psychologists as part of a case plan. If we are lucky, we may refer out to community health centers or local PSTD or DV counseling programs.

By and large though, we stay on the legal path and put on our legal blinders to make sure we don’t stray. Then, when we provide advice and counsel or information and referral most of our brochures, tools, educational materials, deal only with legal information.

Hardly ever do we address the emotional and financial and social  consequences of legal choices, or help a client work through the consequences of certain legal actions.

Lastly, when we approach foundations for money, we offer legal interventions to legal problems, and rarely do we partner up with mental health providers, specialists in trauma and abuse, doctors, to help us work with clients in developing skills that will help them get through the trauma/stress of being court and any other underlying traumas they may have dealt with as a result of the underlying abuse, poverty, migration/dislocation, natural emergency, that triggered the legal intervention to begin with. And the funders also don’t encourage cross disciplinary approaches that do evetually hit the health, welfare, housing, police local and federal budgets.  There are no joint LSC/HUD/DHHS/SAMSHA RFPs out there are there–have there ever been? Are federal funders issuing joint RFPs? I think they should be and I have never seen one. If they worked with LSC and did research on these pilots they may find that a multidisciplinary approach may reduce the risk/costs of homelessness, asthma emergency admissions out of poor housing conditions,that end in the legal emergency rooms equivalents (courts and legal hotlines).

The Medico/Legal collaborations offer some hope in taking multidisciplinary approaches to legal interventions. I would like to see more collaborations between poverty lawyers with social work as a profession, PSTD experts and trauma/behavioral experts. This would require continuing to sort out the ethical rules of working with mandatory reporters etc at the local level, setting program policy to enable lawyers to work in such teams etc. It would also require is to consider developing multidisciplinary tools and approaches.

I offer this example that I learned about in Canada that targets kids emotions and helps them deal and understand w/the legal and emotional experience of divorce and separation of their parents. I also offer this New Yorker article,
as a thought piece and model that could eventually be experimented with and replicated in public interest law practice and non profit delivery systems.

The last point is that I do believe that technology can help clients in DV and some type of eviction and family law cases minimize the experience of retelling their story over and over in the process of seeking help. In our triage and intake, we require survivors of abuse (or the story about why they are homeless now or lost their family home or need a guardianship for an elderly parent etc) to recount their stories over and over as a condition of determining eligibility. Since every legal non profit tends to have its own intake system, as the person is referred from one group to the other, the victims recount the story again, hoping there will be a lawyer at the end of the pain. If there is not, their recounting of the horrible things that happened is for nothing. If they shield themselves by showing no affect, then we may judge their veracity. We should start using  online intake systems, online forms and risk assessment tools to create better integrated approaches when we work in areas of law that carry with them heavy emotional tolls for our clients.

What can we do?: 1) talk about this 2) start writing proposals to funders that cross disciplines and 3) develop pilots/best practices based on local pilots that rely on tools and resources that can be easily modified and adopted to other local conditions, 4) reconnect with law school and request that they cover wholistic practice models in their ethics and elective classes, develop wholistic clinics and teach law students skills to provide legal interventions in an empathetic and non-robotic way. We can use video, skits, theater, podcasts, etc and other types of simulation to sensitize law students and professionals on the impact we have on our clients self perception and self esteem and ability to help themselves once our involvement is over.

Big challenge, requires out of the box thinking.

This blog thanks the person who wrote this — ideas for follow up much appreciated.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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