My experience working with lawyers and being a member of the Lawyers Club of San Diego entirely changed my perspective from the experience I had as a client. I parented my child through the experience of being a victim of crime in a criminal case, a plaintiff in a civil trial, and a fighter through two subsequent appeals. Over a period of eight years, I spent many hours talking to the Deputy District Attorney, talking to my attorneys, being deposed by defense attorneys, and sitting in the court room. Even though I had top-notch attorneys and mostly positive outcomes, I felt lost throughout the entire process. I have been a victim advocate for clients in both civil and criminal cases for three years now and want to share with lawyers what it feels like from a client’s perspective.
Clients are intimidated by you.
No matter how kind you are, clients are scared of you. They won’t tell you everything up front due to trauma, lack of trust, and fear of sounding stupid. People seek help from attorneys when they feel they have been wronged and their trust has been broken. Their nervous system is stuck in fight, flight, or freeze mode and they may not be thinking clearly. Help your client relax and feel more comfortable with you by letting them speak without interrupting and leave a long pause before responding. Provide helpful resources and conduct grounding exercises that will further help them.
Clients feel like outsiders.
Legalese is the equivalent of a foreign language to people outside the legal world. Every word feels like drinking from a firehose. Clients may not keep up and will be too embarrassed to say they don’t understand. Not asking for help in a foreign country can lead to costly mistakes, and the same can apply to your clients because this area is foreign to them. They may have never stepped foot into a law office or court room before, except perhaps for a day of jury duty. Your clients may have never answered interrogatories or been deposed. This adds up to a client who feels lost and unsure of themselves and can lead to misunderstandings.
You can help by losing the formalities when possible. Meeting rooms should be warm and inviting. Save the suit for court. Talk slower and lose the legalese. Instruct them about the process in a manner you would give directions to a visitor without a map.
To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.
You do this work daily and might be working on twenty cases at a time; but (hopefully), this is your client’s one and only case. Clients do not realize how long the process takes, how much time lapses in between the different stages of litigation, and how much work is expected of them. When court dates change, that is a normal workday for you—but your client has been planning their entire life around the court date (arranging childcare, making travel arrangements, and requesting days off work in advance). Inevitable court changes can be financially burdensome and make a client become uncooperative.
As the best lawyers know, little actions can go a long way. Help clients feel validated by being mindful not to rush them off the phone or use template correspondence. Check in with them often and offer to revisit how the process works and what the next steps will be. Make sure they know in advance that court dates can change at the last minute, acknowledge how much of an inconvenience it may be, and ask how you can help.
Christy Heiskala is co-chair of San Diego Lawyers Club’s Human Trafficking Collaborative Community Sub-Committee, she provides civil litigation victim support, and volunteers for the Center for Community Solutions as a SART advocate.