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Walking a Mile in Our Client's Shoes

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Universal Pictures

"Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes." Attorney Atticus Finch, hero of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, puts this another way:

You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

However the need for empathy is expressed, a lawyer is best when he or she works to understand another person's emotions and history. It is this understanding that is a building block to trusting relationships. No two clients are alike. Taking the time to understand our client's hopes, fears, and their need for our assistance is initially far more important than the law that may apply to their circumstances. Clients do not come to us to report on their problem-free lives any more than we would check in at the local emergency room to let them know we're feeling great.

There are times when I feel like our law firm's welcome mat should read "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free" - words inside the Statue of Liberty. Of course, to be fair and honest, we would also need an additional mat welcoming clients happy to pay hourly fees for our time and advice.

When we walk a mile in our client's shoes, we understand that our clients need us precisely because they are tired, poor and heavily burdened by circumstances seemingly beyond their control. For many, a contingency fee will work to give them a fighting chance in a dispute against a well-funded opponent. For others, we can serve as a referral source to other attorneys or professionals able to assist. Sometimes we can do nothing but listen. This, too, can be very important.

In most occupations, we all have teaching and learning moments. Lawyers, young or old, must realize that time with their clients is not just their teaching moment - it may well be a far more important learning moment. It is often said that people don't care how much you know until they know that you care. This should not be forgotten. Clients have the same feelings that we would have when addressing uncomfortable subjects.

I like to use a whiteboard to help explain legal concepts as applied to the facts at hand. I remember things better that way and I think that our clients do as well. Sometimes clients will take a picture of the whiteboard so that they can refer back to it in the future. The whiteboard often prompts good questions - questions that I might have easily missed. Again, this can be a learning moment for me as well as our client.

The most important thing for lawyers to remember is that clients want to be treated as the lawyers themselves would want to be treated. Clients want to be listened to and respected. We can go a long way to making an effort to "walk a mile."

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