When clients come to our office or even when they are deciding whether to make an appointment, one of the first questions is frequently: “What can a lawyer do for me that I cannot do myself?”
I have been thinking about this question for years and struggling for an answer when the case is not particularly complicated. We do not, for example, have any special status with the government that ensures our cases get preference. We can’t guarantee a result or a time frame just because we are lawyers. We have no superpowers! Then I found myself talking to relatives who had hired an estate planning lawyer on a relatively simple matter and one thing became abundantly clear – a lawyer can do plenty of things a client cannot do for themselves even in a “simple” case.
The first thing my relatives said is that they were instantly calmer and more relaxed once the lawyer laid out a game plan. They were unsure of how to handle their estate but had lots of ideas and the lawyer helped them navigate the options in a way that made them feel taken care of. The lawyer also had developed very specific forms and documents that ensured everything was correct the first time which reduced the potential stress my relatives would have faced had they tried to do it themselves. It’s not that they were not smart enough to figure it out eventually, it’s more that having an expert do it correctly the first time saved time, money and aggravation. Over and over, my relatives said: “She just made it so easy and made us feel confident!” Hmm!!!!
After this experience, I started paying more attention to how I interacted with my own clients and began watching my colleagues do the same. I saw at least three very important things lawyers do for clients that clients cannot do for themselves: We are the client’s champion at all times, we are the client’s translators not just of language but of concepts, and we are truly the client’s counselors.
In the immigration field, people’s lives are profoundly affected by the smallest action and one tiny mistake can have permanent consequences. As a result, people who come to us are usually nervous and often outright scared. Even a client seeking an employment based visa and not facing anything as drastic as deportation has butterflies when they think about what happens if the visa or permanent residence application is denied. Lawyers can help with those butterflies and even with the outright fear by showing the client what the options are, having a specific plan (with contingencies) for how to proceed and reassuring them – every step of the way – that we will do everything in our power to make sure they get a good result. Knowing they have someone in their corner to fight for them is incredibly important to clients even in cases that might actually turn out to be simple.
Our clients come to us with lots of information from friends, neighbors, co-workers, the Internet or the government itself. Sometimes the information is accurate, sometimes it’s just plain wrong. Most often, it is misleading or incomplete unless the person receiving the information has the background knowledge to place it into context and know what it actually means. Suddenly we are not just translating words from one language into another (that happens plenty) but we are translating what the clients have found out on their own into something useable or meaningful for their case. The translation may be as simple as: “Yes, this is theoretically possible but your case is different because _____ which means your result will likely be _______.” Our job is to make sure the client understands what makes their case the same or different from the information they have gathered and how that will affect the result. We do that using our training and experience which explains why this sort of translation is valuable even in a simple case.
A lawyer also serves as the client’s counselor which actually turns out to be one of the oldest parts of the definition of the word “lawyer.” Clients – no matter the type of case – worry about what they need to tell and what they can keep to themselves, they wonder which of multiple alternatives might be “better”, they worry about what happens if Plan A fails and they imagine that “worst case” scenario over and over instead of sleeping at night. They may also convince themselves of something that is not true, not possible or both. We provide the accurate or missing information and the reality check.
As a counselor, the first thing we do is assure the client that the client need not fear disclosing any fact that might relate to the case because everything is confidential. The second thing is to really listen to the client’s whole story but nevertheless keep the client focused on what is important to the case by listening and gently guiding the client back to the core of the story. The third is to give advice impassionately – a good counselor does not give advice based on emotional involvement, on whether they like or dislike a person or any other feelings about the case or the client. A good counselor looks at the legally relevant facts plus anything else the client has disclosed, or anything the lawyer knows, that might have an impact on the case whether it is money, a willingness (or unwillingness) to go in for a tough fight, chances of success based on prior experience, time pressures or some other factor, and lays out the options so the client has all of the information – tailored to their particular circumstances – to make a choice of how to proceed.
Information is power and by providing a safe environment for the client to tell their story, listening and laying out the options (using both our counselor and translator skills) we empower the client to make a choice and then we come full circle by being their champion and working toward making that choice a reality. Kind of cool!