By: Alyssa Potts, Fall 2017 HeLP Clinic Student Intern
One of, if not the most important, aspects of the attorney-client relationship is communication. Not just communication, but effective communication. During representation of a client, it is important to know the barriers to communication and to be understanding of them. There are two main types of barriers to communication: barriers to getting in contact with the client, and barriers to the actual communication. Barriers to getting in touch with the client are often difficult to understand, especially in the HeLP clinic where we work with low-income clients. Often times our clients may not have a cell phone or a home phone, or may be unable to come up with the money to pay their phone bill that month. Our clients are often busy trying to juggle work, home, and children, which is especially challenging when one or more of those children is disabled. As law student interns, we often do not realize that our clients may be hesitant around us because we are acting in a legal capacity for them, and to some people that can be very intimidating. Other barriers to actual communication include things such as language barriers, use of jargon and legalese, educational differences, and emotional barriers. While communicating, it is important for us to speak in simple terms that the client will understand without losing the point or making the client feel like we are talking down to them. It is a fine line to walk, but is easy to do when it is made a priority. Speaking in simple, straightforward terms will help close the gap in language barriers as well as educational differences.
Sometimes, despite repeated attempts to contact a client, and even taking the barriers to communication into consideration, it still just fails. This can be stressful, disheartening, and confusing. It is frustrating because these clients have sought out legal help but then once they get it, they do not communicate with you. It is important to remember that it is not your fault, nor is it the client’s fault. Our clients are people who have often been lied to and sent going around in circles to find information. They might not trust the system, and they might not trust us. It is up to us to earn their trust. Granted, this is difficult if we are unable to get into contact with them, but we must understand that they are not ignoring us due to malice or laziness. Our clients are often stressed, scared, and tired. When we try to contact them, yes, we are trying to help them solve a problem, but we are also adding a list of things to do to their already ever-growing list. There are only 24 hours in a day, and many of our clients spend all day taking care of their children, worrying about their children and their bills, and trying to keep a sense of normalcy going. They might not have the time or the ability to take two hours out of their day to come to the clinic for an interview, or even to do a phone interview with us. They are busy people with a lot on their plate. It is so easy to get offended or upset and feel like the client is purposely ignoring you, but most of the time that is not the case. They want to do what they can to help their child and their family. Sometimes, they just cannot handle the legal process and everything that comes along with it—interviews, phone calls, paperwork, court proceedings, and more. It is a lot to handle, especially for someone who is already struggling.
It is important in this line of work (and everyday life) for us to be compassionate. To be empathetic. To be understanding of the fact that it may not be that clients do not want to communicate with us, but rather, that they do not know how to communicate with us. We cannot force clients to talk to us. All we can do is open the doors to communication and try our best to encourage and support them.