To Understand a Client's Needs Requires Exploration
JW Way Fundamental #4: Walk in your client’s shoes. See the world from their perspective. Empathize by understanding their fears and concerns and showing you care. Ask, “If I were in their shoes, what would I want to know and how would I want to be treated?"
When clients come to us for estate planning, they have to address difficult questions including end of life questions, life-extending medical interventions, and navigating differing opinions among family members. A Living Will is a routine document for us. However, it is not routine to many of our clients. At a recent document signing, I listened to the attorney explain the purpose of a living will. The client became visibly upset and emotionally distressed and left the conference room crying, with the distraught spouse quickly following. Later we learned that recently they had made the extremely difficult decision to terminate life support for someone they cared about deeply.
We never know what lies behind a legal need unless we explore it. Is the angry wife seeking a divorce finally coming to grips with years of abuse and displacing her anger on you; is the potential client pushy because of a prior experience with an attorney that was unresponsive or is it something else? It is important to get a full understanding of the client’s needs and motivations when consulting with you.
Often, clients are reluctant to discuss, or are even unaware, of the underlying emotions that are driving their behavior and decision making. This is where it is crucial to listen fully to the client; to probe behind the superficial and gain an understanding of the totality of circumstances considering their underlying emotions that will drive the goals and tactics you employ to resolve the client’s matter.
How can we step into our clients’ shoes and better understand them?
- Determine the “back story” that controls the need for legal help
- Be empathetic and align yourself with the emotional needs of the client
- It is much easier to be patient when facing what seems unreasonable client demands if you understand what might be motivating their impatience
- Practice being non-judgmental. Even if emotions are out of place or irrational - or simply hitting you at a time you have little energy to respond - being irritated or internally critical can cause a client to feel misunderstood or dismissed.
No matter what level of contact we have with clients (I am a paralegal), when we walk in our client’s shoes, identifying with their needs, emotions, hopes, and fears in such a way that they feel understood, it provides them assurance they are in excellent legal hands.
About the Author: Kathy Maitha is an estate planning and probate paralegal at the law firm of Jaburg Wilk. She frequently facilitates workshops on critical conversations, relationships and leadership.