Who do lawyers work for?

by Mike Wells

Mike blog 2

Who do Lawyers work for? 5 points if you answered “the firm” or similar. 10 points if you said “the Court” (as in ‘Lawyers being Officers of the Court’). Extra extra bonus points if you said “our client”.

It has struck me on a few occasions recently that the client seems to have dropped off the radar of some lawyers. To me, this is akin to the television show “Yes, Minister” where the comment was made (inter alia) that it would be easier to run a hospital if only they weren’t full of patients…

What prompted me to think about this topic was a recent article published through the Law Institute of Victoria’s Young Lawyers section about dealing with difficult clients. The article gave helpful hints and advice about “what to do when you have a difficult client”. Advice and tips included: keeping detailed file notes; being clear in your communications; knowing that it is permissible to terminate the lawyer-client relationship; recognising that it is possible to ask a colleague to take over the conduct of the client’s file….All helpful advice – up to a point. However, what was missing was reference to the client’s experience and perspective – after all, whether our clients are good, bad, difficult or indifferent, they are our clients. Aren’t they??

The LIV YLS article reminded me of a recent seminar I attended where a Mediator was invited to give a talk to lawyers about what he did and why lawyers should look at Mediation as a genuine option to assist in dispute resolution. This Mediator then began to list several quite reasonable reasons about why Mediation should be attractive to lawyers. For example, he said:  Mediation should not be seen as a vehicle that can cause the loss of clients and fees, but rather one that can, through high turnover, result in a greater number of clients who can have their issues resolved and sorted. There were several other “benefits” of Mediation espoused by this fellow, but, interestingly and perhaps a little disappointingly, not a word about how Mediation can be good for clients, or, indeed, why Lawyers should even give any thought to looking at Mediation as an option to avoid litigation from the clients’ perspective. Do we really not care about our clients’ wellbeing??

I think we would all agree that in some way, most of our clients are experiencing stress and pressure. Some just cope with it better than others – funnily enough, just like us Lawyers!

As a Collaborative Family Lawyer, my experience of clients is that they are often having to rely heavily on their Lawyers and that they are often under extreme levels of stress and pressure. This is fairly typical in the area of Family Law, where a Lawyer is often expected by their client to be a counsellor, financial advisor, children’s expert, shoulder-to-cry-on, and more.

As a collaborative Family Lawyer, I think what also needs to be kept in mind is that clients with whom we work and who rely on lawyers heavily (at times) are often under extreme levels of stress and pressure.

Wider than just the area of Family law, we can assume that our clients are under stress and pressure that is not always able to be confined to their legal situation, so not only remembering to assist your client to separate the legal and non-legal issues but, ideally, to recommend them options (such as counselling, amongst others) to help with the non-legal issues often helps the client cope with the entire situation better.

I also think part of a lawyer’s role is to not add to the client’s stress. What I am saying here is, in effect, that we should remember to try to see things from our client’s perspective – I have found this helpful to sometimes explain and assist me to address situations of dissonance between a client’s instructions / thoughts and my advice.

I think it is also helpful to remember that we as lawyers are often only hearing 1/2 of the story. Where possible I believe it is helpful to bear this in mind and to try and engage, when possible, with the other lawyer to see whether there can be information / insights shared that can better assist the clients by potentially reducing the number of things in apparent dispute. I acknowledge this is far easier to do when in a Collaboration!

Remember, what will inevitably make a ‘difficult’ client ‘less difficult’ is a resolution of their dispute. Thus, looking for opportunities for meaningful alternative dispute resolution (mediation, collaboration etc) can often fast track the end of your relationship with your so-called ‘difficult’ client. So, I think it is very helpful, if, somewhere amidst the time recording, budget pressures, networking, learning, long hours, and all the other demands that we lawyers typically experience each day, that we are indeed working for our clients and they need us as much as we need them.

*Updated on 2/6/2014