Attorneys: Great Orators, Better Listeners

By: Steven Hendryx, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

While working in the HeLP Clinic this past semester, the skills that one traditionally associates with “lawyering” have been honed.  I, along with my amazing team and supervisor, had the opportunity to prepare for a disability benefits hearing.  This included interviewing, building up a case file, drafting a brief in support of our case, and preparing to advocate at the hearing for our client.  This was a truly rewarding experience, and one that I am very thankful that I had the chance to be a part of.

However, toward the end of the semester, I had an encounter that put all of that to shame, and reminded me that there are more important skills to being a lawyer and advocate.  While participating in the Behind the Scenes at Hughes Spalding program, I and another clinic student met with a potential client.  The resident that referred us to her warned us that she was very quiet, but that she may have a potential legal issue with her landlord—a very run of the mill case for clinic students.  What we did not know was that this woman’s problems ran much deeper than that.  Domestic abuse, stalking . . . the information came pouring out of her, along with her tears, without any prying on our part.  She needed to talk.

She continued, explaining that we were the first people who actually seemed like they wanted to help her.  On prior occasions, both doctors and judges had doubted her story.  This woman had exhausted all of the remedies at her disposal, everything that she knew how to do, and no one wanted to help.  That’s where we came in.

This encounter, as brief as it was, was one of the most impactful moments I’ve ever experienced.  It was a stunning reminder that while the stuff we learn in law school is all very important—writing, oral advocacy, courtroom skills—in this case (and I’m sure many other cases), the most important skill that we had was to sit back and listen.  Clients come to us for help—while our brains are always evaluating and analyzing, the clients are just getting things off of their chests, things that are impacting their lives daily.  This experience refocused my attention on client-centered lawyering, and is something that I’ll remember about the HeLP Clinic for the rest of my life.