Clients bring issues to you every day that aren’t, strictly speaking, legal issues. Maybe your business client needs a new accountant because the last one got her sued. Or your litigation client is so distraught he can’t work with you (or anyone else), and might need a mental health professional. You probably have resources that could help, but should you advise your clients on these issues? If so, how?
“Attorney and Counselor at Law” may sound old-fashioned, but that “counselor” in the title is what many of your clients need. It’s not counseling in the mental health sense — that’s out of most lawyers’ league. It’s counseling in the “advising” sense. You are a trustworthy source of advice, not only for the legal matter you’ve been hired to handle, but issues that are related — directly or indirectly. Your main job is handling their legal matters, but you’re not fulfilling the role of counselor if you shut your eyes to your clients’ other needs.
So how can you recognize when it is appropriate for you to step into the counselor role, and how can you be the trusted advisor your client needs while keeping your professional and personal boundaries intact?
First, Set Your Boundaries
A lot of lawyers are “fixers” — if there’s any kind of problem, they want to fix it now. But your clients likely have lots of problems and you cannot and should not be responsible for fixing them all. They are grown-ups, after all. You also need to manage your time — for your own benefit and for the benefit of your family and other clients. So you’ll need to set some boundaries and intentionally decide when you can offer help, and what kind of help you can offer. These boundaries will allow you to act as a counselor when it’s appropriate, without wading into areas where you don’t belong.
Setting your boundaries is a personal exercise, guided by professional ethics. Do it first, before you are tempted to move into the counselor role (or before things get further out of hand). For example, you might say that you will get involved if:
- My client has a problem that directly affects my ability to work with him. I will identify other people who can help, and refer my client to them. I will personally follow up to make sure the problem is being solved, so I can do my work.
- My client asks for my help, and I have useful information. I will give information to my client, but I will not handle the problem myself.
- My client has a problem caused by the legal matter I’m working on, or the legal matter was caused by the problem. I will help my client identify others who can help, and make referrals if necessary.
- A lot of my clients are having the same kind of problem, and I have or can get information that could help them. I will identify several people or organizations who can help with that problem and provide their names to all of my clients that are having the same issue.
Another way to set boundaries is to say you will not get involved if my client has a problem that is not directly or indirectly related to the legal problem I’m working on. I will not personally handle, or ask my staff to handle, issues that aren’t directly related to the work my client has hired me to do.
Proactive and Reactive Problems
Client problems where you can help fall into two general categories:
- Problems common among groups of clients, where you can be proactive and offer helpful advice before it’s needed.
- Problems particular to one client, where you have to be reactive.
Proactive advice is useful in practice areas where you may see the same problems over and over again, and consequently give the same advice over and over again. For example, if you’re working directly with the elderly, or with caregivers for the elderly or disabled, finding services to help with daily activities is a common issue. Lots of help may be available — meals on wheels, cleaning services, driving services, elder companions, home health care providers — but for someone just entering this labyrinth, pulling all of it together is difficult and time consuming. You can circumvent questions and reduce anxiety by making it standard practice to include in the initial paperwork you provide to these clients referral numbers for social service agencies that serve as “gatekeepers” for this information, or a list of providers your clients have found reliable.
Handling Reactive Problems, Three Ways
Reactive problems come in a few different flavors. The first is easy. A client asks for your help — she might need help selling her house and want to know if you can recommend a realtor. You have realtors on your referral list, so you follow your guidelines for making referrals, and give her some names.
The second is not so easy. The problem is obvious to you — perhaps the client’s finances are a mess — but he hasn’t asked for help. You know if he doesn’t get his act together, he’ll have big problems later on. In this case, refer to your boundaries. Is this something you’ve decided to address? If so, make the recommendation kindly — he may be embarrassed, or he may not know or care. You might say, “I’ve noticed you have a lot of accounts that are serving the same function, and you’re paying for all of them — it’s really complicated, and you could save some money if you consolidated them. Do you have a banker or financial planner you could work with on this?”
Or try, “I have other clients who are dealing with financial situations like yours. Some have found it helpful to [say what would be helpful]. Do you think that would help you as well?”
The third situation is the most difficult. Your client clearly has a problem that’s affecting him, but you aren’t sure what it is, and he hasn’t brought it up. You can leave this type of issue alone unless it’s affecting your representation. If it’s causing problems for you, give your client a chance to tell you what’s going on, without making assumptions. Tell him what specific actions, inactions or behaviors you’ve seen that are of concern, and ask if you can help. You might say, “I’ve noticed that you’ve rescheduled our meeting three times, and haven’t sent in the records we’ve asked for a couple of times. You seem quite upset whenever we talk on the phone. Is there something going on I can help you with?”
Be aware that your client might answer your question by identifying a problem you can’t help with — maybe a spouse or parent is seriously ill — but at least you can rearrange how the legal work gets done. On the other hand, he might tell you about a problem that you can help him handle. By offering assistance, your legal work gets easier.
You can’t fix all of your clients’ problems. However, you do have access to information your clients may not have, aw well as a valuable perspective from dealing regularly with problems that are brand new to them. Becoming their trusted advisor — within your boundaries — cements your relationship with your clients. Good for them, good for you.