By: Juliana Mesa, Fall 2018 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern
Prior to coming to law school, I worked at a nonprofit where I worked with clients ranging from some of the largest corporations in Atlanta, to small nonprofits which specialized on narrow issues in our community. All of my clients were very good at what they did, but all came to us because they were looking for experts in a different area they needed help with. For some of our corporate partners, this often came in questions on how to make a bigger impact in our community and how to get their employees more engaged through volunteer opportunities.
Just as in many other client-facing careers, clients come to us at the HeLP clinic because of our expertise and ability to help in a specific area, and often come with a specific goal in mind. For example, in the HeLP Clinic we might have clients that know they want help in receiving SSA disability benefits or want to get out of their lease with their landlord.
In both settings, I have had to encounter situations in which I have had to tell a client “no.” This is often an uncomfortable situation because, although we want to make our clients happy and give them the answers they want, as the experts in the field we have a duty to give them honest and correct advice, even if it is not exactly what the client envisioned.
A seemingly small example, but one which surprisingly brought up how difficult it can be to tell a client “no,” was when corporate clients wanted to put together a volunteer event for their employees by creating hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the hungry across Atlanta.
At face value, this sounds like a great idea. This is a project where volunteers can work together in a fun environment, which often serves as a team builder, while at the same time feeding people who don’t have access to food.
Multiple clients would come to us with an idea such as this set in stone and often did not want to deviate from their plan, as it was low cost to them. Since my role was corporate relationship manager, my goal was to develop and maintain donor relationships, which would be made a lot easier if I could just always tell the client “yes.” However, even with something this simple, as the expert in the field and understanding my client’s goals and needs, the community’s needs, and alternative options that could be pursued, it was my duty to say no. This may have been an idea that on the surface met all the client’s needs; however, I knew that the idea wouldn’t achieve the impact my client was seeking, and therefore we would have to look for another answer. As the expert, I knew that not many shelters can take peanut butter and jelly sandwich donations. There are so many people that have peanut allergies, that it is against many of their policies to do so. I also knew that even if some shelters could take the sandwiches, they could only take a small amount, meaning that hundreds of sandwiches would go to waste, meaning that my client would waste their employees’ volunteer time and their own money spent on the project.
Although this seems like a simple example, it always surprised me because of how much some clients did not like being told “no.”
In delivering this type of news to clients, I have developed a few steps that have helped, especially as I have transitioned into my role as a student intern in the HeLP clinic.
First, remember that you are the expert. Clients come to us because of our expertise. After you have done your research and understand the problem at hand, be confident in your answer. Often times the client might not have the same level of expertise or experience in the field, might not take all considerations into account, and is relying on you to give them the correct information, even if it is not their ideal outcome.
Second, remember that we are serving our clients. Although we are the experts, remember that there would be no need for our expertise if there were no client. So, it is essential to understand your client’s goals, needs, and background. That way, if we discover roadblocks along our path, we can consider alternative routes while keeping our client’s well-being and specific goals in mind.
Also, remember to deliver the news in a straightforward but respectful manner. Be upfront with your client about your answer so that there is no confusion or false expectations. Help your client understand how you arrived at the answer, and why the outcome is not what they expected. If they are involved in the process, and understand how you arrived at your answer, they will be more understanding as long as they know that you took the time to consider the relevant law, the facts at hand, and their goals and expectations.
Finally, as one of my law professors recently told me, “Don’t stop at no.” Even if the client’s main goal is unattainable, and the answer to the client has to be “no,” do not stop there. Find out what alternative avenues they can take, what similar options they might have, or what they need to do moving forward in order to attain their initial goal in the future.