Working to recover full compensation for someone who’s been hurt by negligence or wrongful conduct is part of the missions of a plaintiff’s lawyer. But the lawyer’s part of the attorney-client relationship involves more than being a personal injury warrior.
The other aspects of that relationship are in some ways even more important than success in the litigation arena. They’re the aspects that concern the feelings and fears of people facing serious injury and involve the attorney’s role as a “counselor at law.” The term “aptly describes the most important part of our work: providing guidance toward solutions that make sense and addressing the needs of those who seek our help.”1
Someone seeking legal counsel often knows only that something went wrong causing pain and medical bills. With nothing but delay and denial from a responsible party, he or she appears in a lawyer’s office wondering what can be done, if anything. Sometimes she comes with copies of insurance company forms demanding access to all medical records. Frequently, he arrives with emotions that range from fear to righteous indignation. Always he or she expects the attorney to make things better.
The attorney’s role as counselor “begins when someone comes to our office to discuss a problem and seek a solution[:]
The best among us are good listeners and gather the information necessary to lead to a solution that fits the circumstances. For many clients, this is a first and important opportunity to be heard by someone who is not only independent, but who cares about their problems and is interested in helping them. It is this aspect of what we do that sets us apart from other professions, as something akin to the “healing profession” of medicine . . . . It is not an overstatement to say that in this way, as counselor, we use our skill in an effort to heal—not just the immediate problem presented to us, but the person as well.”2
One of the most helpful things that a lawyer can do is simply listen to his or her client’s questions about things that may seem routine in the law office but are completely new—and often great sources of anxiety—to the client. “Situations that seem mysterious to our clients often appear clear to us. This is not because lawyers are smarter, or have better insight, or are gifted with legal clairvoyance. It’s simply because the experienced lawyer has been down this road before and the territory is familiar.” 3
Unfortunately, the attorney’s performance of his or her role as counselor is more often the source of client dissatisfaction than his or her legal work. Failure “to return phone calls and to respond to letters or faxes is the number one complaint clients have about lawyers.” Surveys shows that other things that frequently frustrate clients are not being kept informed as to a case’s progress, incurring unnecessary costs, and failing to seek innovative solutions to help achieve objectives.4 Avoiding such frustrations starts with understanding that an injured person is usually more concerned with paying medical bills than preparing for trial, more frightened by the prospect of his employer’s retaliation for seeking workers’ compensation benefits than the prospect of testifying before a jury, and more uncomfortable about having to be examined by an insurance doctor than by a defense lawyer. The personal injury attorney can and should prepare for trial from the beginning. The counselor’s ability to listen and respond promptly and compassionately to the person behind the case, however, will be needed first.
The accident lawyer’s work as a counselor is as necessary to a successful outcome as his work providing excellent legal services. But if the lawyer’s focus on the human aspects of the attorney-client relationship is less than clear, then that the person who is hurt by a careless driver, a dangerous sidewalk, or a negligent medical procedure receives less than what he or she is entitled to expect.
1. Thomas J. Ryan, Attorney and Counselor at Law, 79 Mich Bar J (2000).
3. Jack W. Burch, Jr., The Lawyer as Counselor, 58 Va Lawyer 26 (2010).
4. Ed Poll, Six Things That Drive Clients Crazy (And What You Can Do to Avoid Them), Law Practice Today, Am Bar Ass’n Law Practice Mgmt Section (2004).