Give Your Client a Hand
Accommodating Clients with Special Needs
When setting up your office and your office procedures, you need to focus on creating a good experience for your clients. You create that good experience by showing your competence and respect for them, and by making the process as predictable and unsurprising for them as possible. This holds true for all of your clients — including your clients with special needs.
Now, when you see the words “special needs,” your mind probably goes directly to people with physical or mental disabilities. That view’s too narrow when you’re thinking about your practice. Clients have special needs if they have a particular characteristic you must address to provide competent legal services, or something you can address to make their experience with you superior to that provided by any other lawyer.
Consider your current clients, or the people you want to be your clients:
- Do some of them have work schedules or family obligations that make it unusually difficult to meet or communicate with you?
- Are there language barriers?
- Are many of them elderly?
- Do they have physical or mental disabilities?
How do these clients’ particular needs or characteristics get in the way of the work you want to do for them?
When you do this exercise, you are identifying barriers your clients have to overcome to be able to work with you. While you may not be able to eliminate these barriers, once you’ve identified them, you can create ways around them. Doing so shows that you understand and respect your clients. It’s good for them, and it’s good for your practice.
Older Adults and People with Disabilities
If you work with older clients, you must think through their needs when you set up your physical space, and plan to adapt how you communicate with them. The Americans with Disabilities Act applies to your office, so become familiar with what’s required under the law. Physical and mental limitations aren’t always obvious, or always acknowledged, even when they exist. The most practical way to identify barriers is by building automatic practices into your office — questions to be asked and accommodations made regardless of who’s coming in the door. Addressing specific legal requirements is beyond the scope of this article, but these points will help you serve all of your clients thoughtfully.
If you have many older clients or clients with disabilities, consider making these adjustments.
- First, adjust your expectations. Don’t assume that every elderly person needs an accommodation. Everyone ages differently. Some become physically frail, while their minds remain sharp. Others have memory problems, but are perfectly capable of working through complicated decisions. Hearing and vision loss are common, but not universal. And there are people in their 90s in better shape physically and mentally than you are now — understandably, they resent being treated like “old people.”
- Learn to ask respectfully about limitations. Make it easy for your clients to tell you what they need by asking considerate questions at the outset: “Many of our clients have hearing loss/vision loss/mobility problems, and our offices are set up to handle that. Is there any difficulty you have that we should be aware of when you come in?” Listing specific limitations is better than using the general term “disability,” because many people will admit to “trouble getting around,” but reject the idea of being “disabled.”
- Remove trip hazards where you can, and clearly mark the ones that have to stay. Common trip hazards are small rugs, electrical cords, transitions between kinds of flooring (tile to carpet, for example), and slippery floors.
- Make sure your office is well-lit, and have good clearance around all of your furniture. Try to get around your office in a wheelchair or with a walker yourself to identify problem areas.
- Have at least one straight-back chair in every room used by clients, and preferably two — one with arms, and one without. It’s easier to sit and rise from these kinds of chairs.
- Investigate personal hearing devices, and invest in one if it makes sense for your practice. Watch and listen to your client for signs that she’s not hearing everything you say, and offer the device kindly if it looks like she needs it: “A lot of my clients have trouble hearing me, so I got this personal amplifier. Would you like to try wearing it?”
- Plan for house calls. Some clients can’t physically get to you. Try scheduling appointments in the morning at their house, before you go to your office, or on your way home in the evening. If meeting at your client’s home isn’t practical, find another convenient, private place to meet — another lawyer’s office, a conference room at your client’s local bank, or a library or courthouse with private meeting rooms are options.
- Memorialize all meetings in writing and use legible fonts. Use a standard, recognizable font for written communication, like Arial, Roman or Courier, in at least 14-point size, and space lines of text at 1.25 or 1.5.
- Use words along with numerals. When you use numerals in text, always confirm the numbers in words; many visual impairments make numbers like 3, 8 and 0 difficult to read.
Good Client Service Isn’t One Size Fits All
When you take the time to step into your clients’ shoes and address the barriers that make it hard for them to work with you, you’re demonstrating your commitment and building their loyalty to you.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the special needs of people with complicated schedules and those who speak different languages.
Mary Lokensgard is a recovering attorney with over 15 years of experience in private practice, including plaintiff’s personal injury litigation, estate planning and administration, and elder law. She’s now working for herself as an independent writer. She tweets @marylokensgard.