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As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, many older adults tragically have died without the comfort of family and friends by their bedside. My mother, Mary Kathleen Romberg, who was 96 years old when she passed away due to congestive heart failure in a care facility in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, was one of them. On August 29, 2020, she died alone. The care facility did not allow family and friends to be present due to justifiable concerns, especially given the progression of the virus in 2020, about exposing other elderly residents to COVID-19.
Although the practice areas in my Seattle-based law firm include probate and estate administration and I am also licensed to practice in Idaho, where I grew up, my Idaho license is inactive. I decided to reach out to a childhood friend who now runs a solo legal practice in Idaho to assist me in ensuring my mother’s estate was properly administered. This role reversal required me to exchange my traditional role of attorney and counselor—providing legal advice to clients on how to best administer a loved one’s estate—for the unfamiliar and awkward role of a client grieving the loss of a parent. Undoubtedly, many attorneys have also faced this role reversal—such as a dissolution attorney who obtains representation regarding his own divorce, a real estate attorney who seeks independent advice related to a heated boundary dispute with a neighbor, or a litigation attorney who is sued for malpractice. Given my druthers, I would unquestionably choose my attorney role over a client role any day of the week, but the role reversal of becoming the client provided unexpected benefits by teaching me some valuable lessons that may be useful to any attorney engaging with clients.
1. Recognize and Respect Each Client’s Emotions
As attorneys, we understand from an intellectual perspective that our client’s emotional state impacts the attorney-client relationship. However, after practicing law for several decades, I sometimes move a bit too quickly past a client’s feelings of anger, fear, grief, or loss and instead focus on the nuts and bolts of a matter—the work I most enjoy doing and am trained to handle. When a lawyer fails to acknowledge and respect the emotions a client may be experiencing, that lawyer may not be as effective in achieving superior results on behalf of her client. For example, in representing clients who serve as fiduciaries in probate and estate administration, I have observed that grief can significantly impact the process. Clients may become depressed and procrastinate in providing needed information, or clients may become so angry at other family members that the estate becomes mired in petty disagreements. As part of collaborating with our clients to successfully overcome these obstacles, it is critical to recognize and proactively address the emotions at play.
As a client, I found it challenging, particularly in the beginning of the representation, to compartmentalize. I knew, intellectually, what facts were relevant and what information was unnecessary for moving the estate forward. Nonetheless, because I was grieving, during my initial telephone conferences with my attorney I tended to bring up a wide range of issues that were irrelevant to representation. As time passed, I increasingly got myself on track as I recognized the importance of sticking to the task at hand, keeping the bills down, and not substituting legal advice for grief counseling. My ability to do that directly related to my training and experience as a lawyer. I developed a deeper appreciation for how tremendously challenging it must be for a client suffering a loss who has no exposure to the legal system to compartmentalize and work efficiently with counsel.
My experience as a client serves as a helpful reminder to step in as needed and be willing to directly address a client’s emotional issues, especially if those emotions seem to be thwarting the client’s ability to work effectively as a fiduciary. Most lawyers: (1) are not trained as mental health professionals; (2) charge a much higher hourly rate than mental health professionals; and (3) are responsible for the matters set forth in the engagement letter rather than the client’s mental health. And yet, it is also true that a lawyer can, and sometimes should, raise concerns with her client when an estate’s administration is not progressing smoothly; acknowledge and empathize with the client’s challenging situation; and suggest that it may be beneficial for a client to seek guidance and support from a licensed mental health counselor. If the client agrees, then, hopefully, that choice will enable the client to be better equipped to successfully cope with the loss of a loved one and become more focused on fulfilling his fiduciary responsibilities to the estate.
2. Communicate about Communications
As attorneys, we tend to be mindful that if we are billing by the hour, the more time we spend communicating with our client, the higher the client’s bills. Since higher bills can result in client dissatisfaction, lawyers may be tempted to shortchange the communications we provide to our clients.
As a client, throughout the course of representation, my attorney communicated with me on a reasonable basis concerning the pertinent legal issues. Putting on my lawyer hat, I knew that the level of communication was appropriate. But as I experienced grief, I also felt anxious and tended to desire more communication. This experience enabled me to better understand the perspective of our clients, most of whom have had little exposure to attorney billing practices and tend to want a generous amount of communication because they are understandably experiencing anxiety.
Being a client reminded me of the inherent value of communicating with clients about the level of communication that they prefer. Being direct in explaining that increased amounts of communications result in higher fees may help you and the client hit the right note in balancing these considerations. Make sure clients know that if they need more communication from you, or less, all they need to do is ask.
3. Give Your Clients a Job Description
As a client, particularly in the beginning of the attorney-client relationship, I wanted to jump in and assume my accustomed and familiar role of attorney by being overly proactive in controlling the substantive legal work. In other words, I wanted to drive the car. That desire contradicted my reasons for obtaining representation, but practicing law was something I could control. I could not control that my mother had died. Although most of our clients do not have a license to practice law, they do have a tool that they may perceive as nearly as valuable: Google. Anxious clients who desire to gain control tend to conduct Internet searches and, for better or worse, take action based on those search results rather than legal advice.
My experience as a client reminded me of the need to give clients a clear job description at the onset of representation, assigning tasks and deadlines for completion so that they can both help their cause and have something productive and positive to focus on. Otherwise, some clients may want to grab the steering wheel and attempt to control the car without consulting you first, potentially with disastrous results.
Let Your Experience Inform Your Practice
The role reversal of becoming a client gave me a fresh perspective on how I can improve in my professional role as an attorney and counselor. Have you experienced situations similar to what your clients confront? More broadly, have you faced difficult personal challenges during the pandemic that might inform and enhance your work? As time passes and we gain more life experience, both challenging and rewarding, we may find unexpected opportunities to develop our professional skills and provide more value to our clients.
This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.