Full Time Practice

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Lawyer as Counselor

(Written by Eileen Doyle Crane, a WIL Committee member)

In my limited experience working in a law office with a colleague who I respect very much and care about, I found that we responded to new client interviews with sometimes polar-opposite reactions to the set of facts presented.

Eileen Doyle Crane
He tended to be willing to pursue the client’s goals solely through legal means, while I found myself automatically wondering how to find some middle ground, an equally-satisfying compromise, and avoid the use of confrontational remedies. I often wondered if that was a result of my inexperience in our profession.

So I was interested to read a very engaging article, “The Lawyer as Counselor,” by Jack W. Burtch, Jr.  He states that “giving good legal advice means the lawyer must listen closely in order to appreciate and understand the client’s particular concerns and values. Good legal advice also requires the lawyer to draw on personal experience, skill, and knowledge to formulate the strategies and solutions that will help achieve the client’s goals.”

Somehow breaking up all those fights among my children seemed to have provided some value in preparing for law practice!

Burtch recounts noticing the word “Counselor” on his law school diploma long after graduation. He developed the view that “the practice of law is dynamic; different situations require different approaches. Attempting to invent a universal method or strategy to be applied to every situation likely will result in disappointment.”

Burtch opined that “It is a lawyer’s job to honor all the client’s concerns—legal, economic, social, emotional—in developing a strategy that yields the best solution to the problem under the existing circumstances. To do this, the lawyer has to ask pointed questions to figure out what the problem really is, even if the client doesn’t know or doesn’t want to reveal it. (Few clients will freely admit they want to disinherit a child because they did not approve the choice of marriage partner. They will find a more palatable excuse.) Solutions to nonproblems aren’t solutions. Only discovering the real problem will uncover the real solution.”

In 1977 authors Binder and Price introduced a new model of client-centered counseling, to deal with client issues, stating that “lawyers cannot really know what value clients place on different consequences and what alternatives will bring the greatest satisfaction.” Some of you who are in the trenches may be thinking, “Yes, of course,” but when the Binder and Price model of “making decisions based on alternatives that bring the ‘greatest client satisfaction,’ there was substantial criticism for these ideas.

Still I am left to wonder if my reaction to a client’s story, compared to my colleague’s, is inexperience, gender-based, personality or experience-based. I wonder what other women attorney’s experiences are in this realm. What is your experience?

(Jack W. Burtch, Jr., The Lawyers as Counselor, Virginia Lawyer, April 2010, Vol. 58, Senior Lawyers Conference, http://macbur.com/pdfs/Article%20-%20Lawyers%20as%20Counselors.pdf)

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