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Give Your Client a Hand

It’s Complicated: Respect Client Schedules and Language Needs

By Mary Lokensgard

In “Accommodating Clients with Special Needs,” we talked about steps you can take to provide superior service to older adults and people with disabilities. But “special needs” can also apply to clients who are full-time caregivers or busy working parents, or who speak English as a second language, or no English at all.

When you step into your clients’ shoes and identify issues that make it difficult for them to work with you, you’re demonstrating your commitment and respect for them. It’s good for them and good for you, too.

Dealing with Complicated Lives

Demanding or unpredictable work schedules and family obligations are common, but clients might not mention them. That doesn’t mean the issues don’t exist, and they could prevent new clients from working with you. If you assume some people will be challenged with these barriers, you can create some useful workarounds.

  • Be flexible about appointments beyond business hours. No, you don’t have to wreck your own life to accommodate theirs. But could you set aside an early morning or evening every week or two, or time on a weekend every month, for appointments? Tell your clients about this option — even if they don’t use it, they’ll be glad to know it’s there.
  • Remember people need to make arrangements. Of course you should tell all clients how long they can anticipate being at your office. Your clients need this information to make arrangements to be away from their work or take care of their families while they tend to their business with you. They may need to get a baby-sitter or someone to stay with an elderly parent.
  • Keep kids in mind. Most parents will find a baby-sitter for long meetings, but sometimes stuff happens — the scheduled sitter flakes out, or it’s a surprise half-day of school — and the kids have to come along. Don’t volunteer your staff members to keep the kids occupied unless you’ve designated someone in advance as kid-wrangler. Your staff has work to do, too. Do put together an entertainment bag or box with quiet activities for kids of different ages, like big sheets of paper and (washable!) markers, game books and reading books. (Hot Wheels are not quiet.) If they don’t have anything to amuse them, you will not be amused with what they come up with as entertainment.
Handling Different Languages

If someone other than the client contacts you for an appointment — a child calling on behalf of a parent, or a spouse setting up an appointment for the other spouse, for example — it’s a sign that an issue of some kind needs to be handled. Ask, “Can you tell me why he’s asked you to call our office instead of calling himself?” If the answer is, “His English isn’t very good,” you have a communication barrier to overcome.

When English is difficult for a client, family members are often pressed into service as translators. This creates a barrier because family members typically aren’t equipped to handle technical legal language or concepts. You can’t be sure you or your client is getting complete, correct information, and confidentiality is compromised. If languages other than English are common in your area, consider hiring staff who are fluent in those languages.

If that’s not an option, contact your local court for a list of translators competent to act in a legal setting, or contact a local hospital for names of translators. You’ll want several on call. Since you’ll need to communicate in writing, too, make sure you find translators who handle that as well.

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Categories: Client Service, Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch, Managing a Law Firm
Originally published June 29, 2015
Last updated October 19, 2019
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