Andrew Brown, Fall 2018 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern
“Hello, my name is Andrew Brown and I am with the HeLP Legal Services Clinic. I am taking over your case this semester. How are you?”
That’s how my first case started this semester. Cases will rarely be completed in one semester in the HeLP Clinic. Accordingly, the Clinic will have quite a few transfer cases. Matters that involve the Social Security Administration are a great example of cases that take longer than one semester to complete. When I participated in the HeLP Clinic last fall, I did not really have to deal with a transfer case. I forgot that clients may be confused by the process and what it is we do exactly.
This interaction made me think about how frustrating the whole process must be for clients. They have to deal with a different set of law students every four months and go through the entire process of explaining their case, again. I could hear the frustration in my client’s voice, especially when I asked questions that were easily answered in the file. “I already told y’all that!” Not the greatest way to start a professional relationship.
We obviously review the file before calling clients for the first time, but it is still important to ask questions that have already likely been asked to check for updates. However, to the client, this may make the law student seem unprepared. It is important for the law student to know that this is not the first time the client has been asked these sorts of questions.
Think about all the headaches someone going through the disability benefits denial process has to go through: dealing with the Social Security Administration, obtaining medical and school records, and having to take care of a disabled child. Throughout that whole process, the client is engaging with administrators and support staff who are using Social Security terms that the client has likely never heard before. Basically, they are just dealing with people in suits. So, when they have yet another pair of law students taking over their case, it is likely we are just another pair of suits to them.
To combat this, recognizing how long and arduous the process must be for clients is the key for developing an efficient working relationship. The use of humor and acknowledging the client’s frustration helps make you seem more approachable. My thought process is that if I can make the client laugh at least once in an interview, then we are on the right track. Laughter makes a stressful situation a little lighter and opens up the channels of communication.
Getting to the point where you client feels comfortable volunteering facts takes time and some thick skin. It helps to be willing to accommodate the client’s needs. For example, if the client cannot find parking in downtown Atlanta, a trip out to a local Captain D’s may be necessary. Not only does this make it easier for the client to meet with you, you are able to show the client just how committed you are to be an effective advocate on their behalf.
My goal with every client is to break that “suit” mold. I take pride in what I do, but I do not want to come across as being “better than someone else” because of it. With all the stresses that come with having a low income and a child with a disability, it may be easy for our clients to assume I am just “another suit.” Having made my clients laugh on multiple occasions and hearing how appreciative they were for our help, I know I am not just another suit to them.