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Your 1L summer: Learning from real clients

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Serving a Client

The first year of law school changes you. No matter how many pre-law or political science classes you took undergrad, you don’t actually know anything about constitutional law or civil procedure. To learn the law is to learn a new way of thinking and it’s not easy.

Likely, your 1L summer will change you even more. To the extent that you can get any experience working directly with clients during your 1L summer, it is an invaluable opportunity.  It changes the way you understand people. You will hear about client’s experiences directly, instead of from the pages of a textbook. You may be surprised at just how clumsy you feel interacting with clients at first, and with any luck, surprised at how much you improve over the course of the summer.

At The Family Center, we represent people affected by severe illness, serious disability, and parental absence. A lot of our clients are indigent, many are currently sick or dealing with the recent loss of a loved one. Their lives unraveled one hospital visit at a time. Working with clients in this environment is challenging.

This has been a busy summer at our office. We saw hundreds of clients in ten weeks with the help of four interns. We have all learned a lot from working with clients, directly. This piece comes from a conversation that we had at the end of this summer. It draws on both of our experiences working with clients — Katherine as a rising 2L and Adam as someone who has been doing this for a while.

First, everything matters in a client engagement. The way you answer the phone matters. Your appearance matters. The words you use matter. How you listen to a client really matters. After all, they are entrusting you with the details of a conflict, their personal details, their hurt, their frustration and they are asking you for help. Whether they pay you $1,200 an hour or nothing, it’s an honor to hold their stories and to help resolve their problems. As law a student or as an experienced lawyer, it’s worth remembering this.

When everything matters, transparency with clients is a necessity. As much as you can, prepare for client meetings. Know at least a little bit about the likely points of the conversation. If asked a question, don’t tell people what you think they want to hear and don’t shut them down. When a client asks you for an opinion, give it thoughtfully but don’t be afraid to say you don’t know when you don’t. Also, follow-up quickly. Responsiveness and honesty allow you to build trust. Clients who trust their lawyers will be more comfortable sharing their stories. The more you know about a client’s story, the easier it will be to  assist them or the attorney on the case.

Of course, there is such a thing as too much transparency. That’s why it is sometimes important to fake it. Inevitably, you’re going to have bad days that have nothing to do with work. This is one of the few moments when transparency is a bad idea. If you’re having the worst day imaginable, put on a great mask.  What’s interesting is that if  you put on a different, positive face for a client, you may find that you feel better about your own crap. Someone needs you and that feels good.

We all know that it’s not “Law and Order,” but the day-to-day of working in a law office hammers that point home quickly. Things that become routine for a lawyer often matter more than you would imagine. One of the most consistently surprising and satisfying pieces of our work is how grateful clients are for work that we might consider less than scintillating.

Katherine – Routinely, we help clients with public benefits applications like DRIE (think rent-freeze). There’s fact-gathering and evaluation. The important part is making sure the client qualifies for the public program and doing the paperwork perfectly. When we assist clients in getting something like DRIE, they are remarkably appreciative. It might take me twenty minutes to do a DRIE application. For the client, that twenty minutes means they stay in their home.

When clients bring more complex issues to the office, you really get an opportunity to do something interesting. At The Family Center, most of our clients have many interconnected legal problems. Exploring the facts and pulling out what you need to know is crucial. For legal interns, it’s time to put into practice what you learned in your legal research/writing class — start by asking open-ended questions. You can’t solve problems that you don’t know exist. Clients may not see the significance of when they received a letter, for example. Paying attention to clients’ narratives, often to what they say quietly, can reveal important points not only about their case but how they got there. Frequently what clients reveal when you listen is that many people failed to listen to them before they got to you. By listening and considering information before you speak or promise, you actually give the client something very valuable; the first signs of progress.

Do all of the above and work really hard and you have a shot at the prize. Your 1L summer and working with clients may give you a greater appreciation for the beauty of humanity. You heard us. People are incredible. No, not everyone is incredible all of the time, but they’re often pretty amazing. In working with clients, especially if you work with clients of modest means, you come to realize quickly how much people can overcome.

Katherine – There was one client this summer, among many, who stands out. I’ll call her Cecelia. Cecelia has about seven different legal problems and has every right to feel overwhelmed, and not concern herself with pleasantries. She has multiple housing issues, and a Family Court problem, all of which need her full attention. She’s also taking care of two small children because her son, their father, died prematurely from cancer. Cecelia has every reason to be angry .Instead, on her way to a Human Resources Administration office for an appointment that we had helped her set-up, she called to thank me and said that she hoped I was having a good day. How she found the time to extend me this small kindness — I have no idea. I’m not sure where to put this in my own mind except to say that gratitude might be the appropriate file for this 1L summer moment.

Your law school summers are so important, not just because of what you do during ten hot weeks, but because of what you bring back with you to law school. In a law office you are reminded that you have a brain that works just fine, despite how law school might make you feel. You may also be reminded that treating people with great respect, listening and putting aside your feelings can lead to all kinds of learning.

Katherine Geithman and Adam Halper Katherine Geithman is a second-year law student at NYU. She is a staff editor on the Journal of Legislation & Public Policy and a member of the Identity Documents Project. Katherine graduated from Rutgers University, where she was captain of the rowing team and majored in political science and psychology. Adam J. Halper is an attorney, mediator and the Director of the Legal Wellness Institute at The Family Center. Prior to becoming Director, Adam was a Staff Attorney at Legal Services –NYC, the nation’s largest public interest law firm. He is a graduate of NYU and Cardozo.