Most clients come to us at the darkest hour of their lives. Some have reached the end of long marriages that they struggled unsuccessfully to keep intact, others have put up with degrading harassment on the job until they can take it no more while others face years in prison. Even those clients who retain lawyers proactively for assistance in estate planning or business incorporation must still confront the prospect of death or partnership disputes and business failure even as they take steps to prepare for or minimize future hardships through the preparation of legal documents.
As desperate as many clients may be when they seek out our help, most solos and small firms are well prepared to serve them. Law school teaches students how to spot clients’ legal issues and fix them, and dozens of blogs, business advisors, and coaching programs offer lawyers advice galore on creating and implementing systems to move clients cases along and keep them happy. But once we fix the problems that brought our clients to our firm, we believe that our work is done. And while technically that’s true, as lawyers, we have the ability to educate and empower our clients through law so that we leave them better off than when we found them.
So what does it mean to leave clients better off than when we found them? That depends upon the case. In my practice, my clients frequently fight uphill battles and at best, can hope for small victories. As I explain to my clients, my limitations as their attorney flow from the nature of the current laws which ultimately, need to be changed to obtain better results. My clients have taken this lesson to heart and in the years since we’ve parted ways, one of them started a nonprofit to deal with these issues, another has run for office and several others have joined citizen-activist groups. These movements have helped advance the law for future landowners and communities impacted by pipeline infrastructure.
Client empowerment can look different depending upon the type of case. In my very first pro bono case – just five months after I graduated, I represented a homeless man who sued a hotel for failing to serve him. We won a modest settlement (nuisance value) but my client was able to put a downpayment on an apartment (I explained his rights as a tenant) and eventually, through a program, I referred him to, found a job. He later referred me several cases though that wasn’t the point. Even as a baby attorney, I didn’t want to see my hard work undone by having him wind up permanently in the homeless shelter.
What can you do to leave clients better off than you found them? Consider some of the following ideas:
- A family law firm or estate planning firm can host events on financial planning or investment for newly divorced women or widows who may not have managed money before;
- A bankruptcy firm with clients who found themselves in debt because of job loss can direct them to job training programs or offer mini-scholarships to clients who decide to return to school;
- A firm representing victims of online bullying or harassment can ensure that clients understand the laws that protect them so that they can share that information with others – or take steps to change and improve the law;
- A firm working with creators on copyright and trademark issues can invest in tools that would help their clients identify violations and take initial steps to correct them on their own.
Today, lawyers are encouraged to integrate technology into their practices, to streamline and automate to handle more clients with less stress. Nothing wrong with that. But all the talk about creating workflows and automating law practices brings to mind assembly lines, with clients traveling along the different stations like widgets. If the only point of owning and running a law firm is to get a client in and out the door as quickly and sterile-ly as possible, then why not just have machines handle the work?
As lawyers, we can and must do better. If law school taught us anything, it’s about how the law works and when the law falls short. We can use our knowledge not just to fix problems ourselves but to empower our clients to do the same. That’s my vision of what access to justice looks like.
What are you doing to leave your clients better off than when you found them? If you or lawyers you know are doing something innovative or exciting on that front, please let me know – would love to profile you at MyShingle.