William & Mary Elder and Disability Law Clinic

Serving Seniors in the Greater Peninsula Area

Month: March 2015

Students & Clients Working Together: The Importance of Open and Complete Communication

By Kaitlyn Chounet, Elder Law Clinic Student, Spring 2015

This past summer, I worked for a county law department, and while I spent a great deal of time working on important aspects of the department’s cases such as researching and drafting motions and memoranda, because the law department represents the county, I never really had the opportunity to work with a client—a real, live person. So, when I joined the Elder Law Clinic, it was my first opportunity to work with people on issues that directly impacted their lives, and I was not really sure how, or if, it would be any different. Now, having worked with clients even for just a few short weeks, I have found that there is at least one substantial difference that I think both us, as student lawyers (and actual lawyers), as well as the clients of the Elder Law Clinic need to understand. That difference is the importance of communication between clients and lawyers.

In Professional Responsibility, we learn that the attorney-client relationship depends on the client making decisions concerning the objectives of the representation and the lawyer making decisions about tactics or how those objectives are ultimately achieved. But what ultimately lies beneath those roles is the importance of communication between the client and lawyer. But that communication is not simply filling out the client information worksheet and sending it back, and it is not just telling the client what the law is or what we need from him. To be conducive to meeting the client’s needs, communication has to be open and complete from both parties. When communication is not as open and complete as it should be, the entire process is slowed and unnecessary difficulties may arise.

We should always ask if what we have said is understood by the client, and we should encourage questions from our clients because their understanding is the only way to ensure open and complete communication from us to them and from them to us. Clients coming to the Elder Law Clinic understand that, as student lawyers, we are not perfect. Sometimes we think we have been effectively communicative when we have not been clear at all, and sometimes we may not think to ask probing follow up questions, so clients should always tell us when they do not understand something and also consider providing more information than they think we may need. Clients should also see the importance of providing the documentation and information we do ask for, even if it is something the client may rather not share. We would not ask for it if we did not need it.  As student lawyers, however, we should also take care to explain why we need something in order to help put clients at ease and help them understand its importance. Ultimately, if clients and clinic students both work to be more open, honest, and complete in their communication, the Elder Law Clinic will be able to much more efficiently and effectively meet the needs of its clients, which in the end, is what we all really want.

First Contact

By Karen Osborne, Elder Law Clinic Student, Spring 2015

When a student enrolls in her first clinic at the law school, the emotions range from excitement to trepidation. The areas of legal practice are completely new and the learning curve is steep, but the real anxiety sets in when the student realizes she will have to handle cases independently (with her teammate) and from the very beginning. The professor oversees all work, but may not always be present at client meetings. This independence is empowering, but also intimidating, especially before that first interview.

As my partner and I went to our first client interview, which happened to be at the potential client’s home, we were twenty minutes early. We had left early for fear of becoming lost and being late. We definitely did not want to be late!

Once inside, the family was very welcoming. The house was comfortable and well kept. The matriarch led us to the dining room where we could easily talk with her and other family members. Though the interview was formal, it was also friendly. The prospective clients were quite patient with us, which made asking probing questions easier. Though they knew we were only students, they seemed comfortable giving very personal details of their lives and finances. I was grateful for their relaxed demeanor because it allowed me to be at ease as well. Within a half hour, we had all the information we needed to determine that the Clinic was well-equipped to help them and that they qualified for our assistance.

This first client contact was not only a good learning opportunity, but also an enjoyable experience. It is a wonderful thing to be able to help others in need while putting all the skills we have been learning at school to practice in the pleasant environment created by the Elder Law Clinic.