Listening to Our Pro Bono Clients

“Recommending that law firms seek client feedback has become so commonplace and widespread in the industry that the advice is almost clichéd.”

Jim Pagliaro

Client relations and client feedback have become standard operating procedures on the business side of large law firms. Does the pro bono program adhere to the same values and follow the same standards? Let’s explore the variety of ways that listening to our pro bono clients can improve our delivery of pro bono services, enhance the professional development of firm attorneys, and have a lasting effect on the individuals and communities served.

Assuaging Your Clients’ Fears and Helping Them Be Better Clients

Like all clients, pro bono clients need to know that they can trust their attorneys. Lack of trust may cause them to withhold documents or information, behave oddly during court proceedings, or miss appointments altogether. Cultivating careful listening skills, however, will allow you to gain a better understanding of the underlying reasons for your client’s suspicions, which may not be apparent to a stranger. For example, clients might be justifiably intimidated by the prospect of being involved with lawyers and the legal system – perhaps they have had negative experiences in the past with the legal system, debt collection agencies, or law enforcement that make them suspicious and mistrusting. Clients may also harbor an inherent skepticism because the advice and assistance they are receiving is free. They may experience shame or embarrassment about needing pro bono assistance. You can only begin developing a more trusting relationship with clients once you are aware of any concerns they may have.

Straightforward steps can often have an outsized impact on your relationship with clients. Prepare a clear and tangible checklist of action items for them to accomplish. If there is a court date, draw a map of the courtroom, a diagram of how to manage the location, and explain what they can expect in the courtroom that day. Take the time to explain the importance of confidentiality and attorney-client privilege so that clients understand why friends and family might need to leave the meeting room. By taking such steps to both listen to and address the concerns your clients may have, you not only help alleviate their fears, but also encourage them to trust you, your legal advice, and your guidance.

As one pro bono attorney reflected, “I’ve found that my willingness to listen to their life experiences and difficulties makes my interaction with them more beneficial to both of us. I gain insights into their lives and they cooperate more fully when they know that the attorney genuinely cares.”

 Empowering Your Client

Pro bono and civil legal aid helps ensure fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of your income. A critical element of ensuring fairness is to empower our pro bono clients, who so often feel powerless and voiceless. Part of helping clients gain control over their legal situations and lives is to clarify their goals, which may not align perfectly with your assumptions.

Listen to your client to get a sense of what they do and don’t know about their legal situation and the process they will be going through. You can then do your best to fill in any gaps in knowledge and understanding, thoroughly explain available options, and offer advice on alternative consequences. Having such conversations teaches your pro bono clients the process as they go and allows them to become better informed and more meaningful partners.

Listening to your client’s story and understanding their needs, even if they fall outside the scope of your representation, may also help you to empower them moving forward. Although you may not be equipped to provide the ancillary support they require, you should be able to point them in the right direction and present them with options that they previously did not know were available to them.

Overcome Your Own Bias and Become a Better Advocate

Why was an older pro bono client who needed a follow-up appointment to finish his paperwork never available first thing in the morning, when it was most convenient for his lawyer? A little probing revealed that the client was not only unemployed, but also homeless, and coming in at such an early hour conflicted with his ability to get a free breakfast.

Another pro bono attorney was working with a 24-year-old male client who was trying to establish a relationship with a four-year-old girl he had just learned was his daughter. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, child protective services became involved in the case, which distressed the client greatly. After having several discussions with her client, the attorney learned that because of his own negative childhood experiences with the child protection system, he had no faith that the system would protect his daughter. Knowing this background helped the attorney better understand her client’s concern, distrust, and anger toward the authority figures in the case, and ultimately helped her advocate more effectively for him.

People are not generally aware of their own biases, particularly if they are subtle. Your job as a lawyer is to work with clients to arrive at the best possible solution for them, and sometimes that might not always feel like the best solution to you. But if you are willing to listen to and communicate with your clients, you will be more likely to overcome your own biases, develop a better understanding of your clients’ thinking, and become a better advocate for their interests.

 Create More Meaningful Learning Experiences

Pro bono matters can be opportunities for learning, especially since they can provide lawyers with opportunities to hone interviewing skills, draft pleadings and briefs, conduct negotiations, provide compliance counselling, examine and prepare expert witnesses, prepare and argue motions and appeals, and sharpen other skills. In particular, junior lawyers at law firms seek the accelerated professional development opportunities and client contact that pro bono matters can provide. Through pro bono work, lawyers can have the opportunity to manage their own case long before they might be able to on a billable matter.

Law is a service industry, which demands client satisfaction in order to remain profitable. Dealing with demanding clients and managing the lawyer-client relationship are skills that all lawyers need to develop. Pro bono engagements provide especially good means for developing these skills. Successful client interaction and relationship-building are transferrable skills. Obtaining meaningful feedback from pro bono clients also serves as a valuable tool to evaluate how effectively attorneys communicate with their clients, since such feedback allows them to identify areas for growth and improvement and strengthen any areas of weakness.

 Ensure That All Clients Are Treated Equally

All clients are clients of the firm. This widely expressed sentiment represents one of the most common pillars of a pro bono practice – the promise to treat pro bono work the same as billable matters.

One way to gauge whether firms are upholding this noble ideal is to solicit feedback from pro bono clients about their experience. This works particularly well if your firm already implements a feedback process for your billable clients to ensure satisfaction or improve future service. By comparing feedback provided by billable clients to that of pro bono clients, firms can ensure that there are no notable discrepancies in the ways that attorneys approach pro bono work.

Treating pro bono clients equally also means meeting their individual needs, the same way that you strive to meet the needs of your paying clients. However, the needs of your pro bono clients will, by their very nature, differ greatly from those of your clients who pay for your services. Lawyers need to adapt and be responsive to their clients’ needs, from the contours of the legal services provided to the level of compassion necessary to develop a trusting relationship. Reviewing feedback from pro bono clients is arguably the best way to ensure that the firm is meeting their needs with the same precision as the needs of billable clients, however much they may differ.

 Deepening Relationships with Partner Organizations

Because most law firm pro bono programs rely heavily on legal services organizations, it is critical to nurture these relationships. Beyond being thankful to a firm for taking on a large number of their matters, organizations need to feel comfortable with your commitment to deliver quality legal services and improvement. Careful listening skills and a creative mind will unearth the needs of the organization that lie just beneath the surface. Asking the right questions and being attentive to not only what representatives of organizations are saying, but also the way they are saying it, can give you a clearer picture of the condition of those organizations and what your firm can do to strengthen their operations. For example, one of the most common, recurring concerns voiced by pro bono providers’ staff members is frustration with firms’ intake and placement systems. Once you recognize this, the firm and the organization can work together to design and implement more efficient processes and procedures. These skills can also help you identify what resources an organization lacks that your firm may be able to provide. A firm that is willing to go above and beyond in this regard is a firm with whom organizations will want to work and will be seen as a valuable community partner.

Individuals dedicated to pro bono – whether they work at a law firm or a legal services/public interest organization – can strengthen and support each other. They should also view each other as partners rather than adversaries. After all, we have the same goals in mind: increasing pro bono and access to justice; ensuring that firms receive appropriate pro bono matters and handle them professionally; and structuring and implementing pro bono projects that make a positive and meaningful difference.

Maximize Your Impact

For most people, pro bono work is not about the hours, but rather the impact the work has on individuals, families, and communities. Our goal is to maximize the impact of every hour dedicated to pro bono work. This requires identifying where the need is greatest and working to fill that gap. It would be unwise to presume exactly where help is most needed at any given time in any given community. Instead, you should listen attentively to both your clients and the legal services organizations with whom you work, because they are deeply rooted within the community you are serving. They are also in the best position to suggest how your work can have a lasting impact.

The benefits of meeting clients and soliciting feedback is the best – and, frankly, the only – way to ensure that a law firm is providing the level of services and value that clients expect and need. By listening to your clients, you ensure that you are not just going through the motions, but are actively engaged in providing legal services that help both current and future clients. Although you might not work with these individuals again, hearing their feedback will make you a better advocate for future clients in similar situations. You can use your experience and knowledge gained from handling individual representations to create systematic structural changes through policy advocacy and other means that can have maximum impact on access to justice issues.

Legal services providers, when asked, can offer candid input about the market and models for providing better or different pro bono services. Asking organizations for their views and listening to their input could improve a firm’s strategic management decisions about elements of its pro bono program. Additionally, as law firms become more proactive in structuring their own pro bono projects, they are increasingly developing freestanding, firm-sponsored projects that are not administered by the local organizations. Given the resource limitations of those nonprofits, such efforts are desirable and a value-add to the community. Firms, however, cannot successfully take a completely go-it-alone approach. It is essential that they consult with local pro bono and legal services programs, because they often have information about the issues, neighborhoods, or organizations that are the focus of the firm’s new project. The sense of history and knowledge of the larger legal services community can be vitally important to firms in selecting a project. Prior consultation with the legal services experts can avert uninformed choices and problematic initiatives, which ultimately allows the firm to avoid duplication and ensure that scarce resources actually address critical needs.

Have you utilized any of these techniques? Leave a comment and share your experience.

Hat tip to PBI interns Ali Boyd, Aubrey Favors, Erin Killeen, and Hiba Said for their significant assistance.