As a pro bono volunteer, the challenges in representing low-income clients consist of more than learning a new area of the law, or gaining experience in client interaction. Representing a pro bono client may be vastly different from a corporate client, and a major hurdle can be the socioeconomic challenges themselves.
Clients may struggle with financial, cultural, educational, and/or emotional barriers, requiring more foresight and sensitivity by the volunteer. Following are a few issues you may encounter, as well as helpful tips in effective client assistance.
Your first meeting with the client may be the most important meeting. Aside from assessing the legal issues, it is also an opportunity to shape the volunteer/client relationship for the duration of the case.
Tip 1: Meet face-to-face with the client and conduct your own intake interview, even if the referring entity has already done so. Here's why:
- It is a chance to build trust and rapport with the client;
- A thorough interview can uncover details or new information;
- Since the client may not have the same level of involvement as a paying client, a face-to-face meeting can help the client feel more invested in his or her case.
Tip 2: Set client expectations. Specifically, you should do the following:
- Go over the retainer agreement to make sure that the client understands your respective duties;
- Explain the limited scope of your assistance on the client's legal matter. Clients may often have a host of legal and non-legal problems, so it is important to be clear on how you can assist them, and that you can refer them to other resources and agencies if requested;
- Be honest about your background. It may be helpful to explain to the client that you are working in an area outside your area of legal expertise;
- It is important to address punctuality issues for appointments since clients may have difficulty with scheduled commitments;
- Stress the client's responsibility to keep you informed about his or her contact information, and your policy on losing touch with the client (Example: If you do not hear from the client within x days of sending a letter requesting a response, you may withdraw from the case).
Tip 3: Get thorough contact information. Keep in mind the following:
- Clients may be difficult to reach - their phones may become disconnected, they may move frequently or have inconsistent work schedules. Get as many alternate phone numbers and emergency contacts as you can, whether it be through the client's work, friends, or family;
- In the case of domestic violence clients, ask whether it is safe to contact the client at his or her residence, or to include the client's address on court pleadings.
Clients may have difficulty balancing their employment, child care, and financial hardships with the tasks involved in litigation. It is therefore important to think ahead and be as flexible as possible.
Tip 1: Ask clients about the best times they can be reached, as well as their work schedule, in order to set court appearances during days off. This will lessen the impact on their employment.
Tip 2: Give plenty of advance notice to clients for appointments, with phone and written reminders. You may want to use certified mail (along with regular mail) to confirm that the client receives the notices.
Financial hardships may be a large contributor to communication and scheduling hardships.
Tip 1: At your first meeting with the client, give the client a stack of self-addressed, stamped envelopes. If your company permits, provide public transportation assistance to the client.
Tip 2: If you need documents from the client, give her advance notice so she can bring the documents to a meeting for you to copy.
Tip 3: Ask clients whether they may be bringing their children to an appointment or court appearance because of lack of child care resources. This way, you and they can prepare for the children's presence (toys for an office appointment, or court daycare facilities - check with the courtroom clerk).
Tip 4: Always ask the referring entity for resources or referrals for clients.
Imparting legal information may be challenging and more time-consuming, depending on the degree of the client's sophistication. It is important to be both patient and firm while counseling your client.
Tip 1: Beware of the emotional response. Your role is to provide legal assistance to the client. If the client is struggling with emotional issues, you can firmly explain your limited role, and refer the client to counseling if necessary.
Tip 2: Be patient; try to explain clearly without "legalese" and without condescension.
Tip 3: For clients with disabilities or other hardships, you may want to limit the frequency that the client has to travel for meetings or court appearances. You may want to conduct phone conferences when possible, including reviewing documents or pleadings with the client over the phone, or giving them extra travel time.
Tip 4: Be culturally sensitive. Consider the following:
- For limited English proficient clients, make sure that they have interpreters who have a background in legal interpretation. It is generally not good practice to have the client's friend/relative interpret for them;
- Stress the confidential nature of your communications, as clients may fear reprisals from their ethnic community;
- Some clients may also have a fear of litigation or public disclosure of their legal issues. In fact, they may not want to bring in third parties as witnesses even if it may help the case. Counsel the client on the impact on the case, but recognize that it is ultimately the client's decision.
Understanding the challenges unique to pro bono assistance can facilitate what can be a very rewarding experience, recognizing that advocacy means not just legal representation, but being an amplifier for your client's voice to be heard.