Bar News - July 15, 2015
Opinion: Gratitude and Resilience: Lessons I Learn from My Clients
By: Tony Sculimbrene
The hardest and most rewarding part of being a lawyer is client relationships. As a public defender, all of my clients are in various states of distress. There is no happy family filing for an adoption or small-time inventor securing a patent. Misery is often the only companion my clients can count on as they move through life (though mental illness and addiction are also common fellow travelers).
Some clients come to you so emotionally destroyed, so battered by life, that they can barely function. I often wonder how some of them can get out of bed each morning and face another day. When a client’s emotions are running high, it is often helpful to let him or her know that you will be taking special steps to help them out. For one client who had fears about being in court with the judge, I set up a specific time for the hearing that was off-schedule from the normal rush of people. A few hours before the hearing, I met with the client to discuss what would happen. This careful, deliberate plan provided a sense of what to expect, lessening the anxiety.
Thinking about working with a client as a relationship and not a transaction is a good starting point. Once that happens – once they come to know and trust you – then you can begin to help them with their legal problems. Some clients need to see you work for them, fight for them, and maybe even take a few hits for them before they will trust you. If you can find ways to do this when the stakes are low, the relationship will be at a better place later on, when the trust is really needed.
Having been at the Public Defender for more than 10 years, I have some clients come back, unfortunately, year after year. In many instances, we know each other pretty well. They know that I will always have their back and that my shoes will probably be untied. I know their demons and how to help them negotiate life, despite their problems.
Many clients have shown me kindness that makes working with them one of the best parts of my job. On one particularly frantic morning, I arrived at court just a bit late (having been at another court). I stepped out of my car and frisked myself for change. I came up empty-handed. At that moment, a former client came by, saw what was happening, and dropped three quarters into my meter while I was reaching into my car to get my briefcase. He didn’t ask. He just did it. By the time I saw what he had done it was too late. He told me that it was a “thank you,” and I graciously accepted, though in the back of my mind I felt terrible that I probably cost him his breakfast.
Coming back to work after the birth of my second son, I was struck by just how many of my clients sent me messages of congratulations. Learning from the office that I was out on paternity leave, a few people dropped me a line. On my first day back, I found a handwritten note on my desk from a long-term client that contained well wishes. A few folks even left messages on my voicemail with similar sentiments. It was wonderful.
I feel like I am particularly lucky – so many of my clients appreciate the work I do for them – but when I look around my office, I realize that every single lawyer I work with has a special drawer where they save the thank-you notes. It’s part of the fuel that keeps us going.
Client relationships are complex. Some folks take hundreds, even thousands of hours of work, over the course of many years, and even then they do not trust you. Others have a way of conveying thanks that is so generous and kind that it seems like an act of grace. I have learned a lot working at the Public Defender – from so many cases, trial strategies, and mentors – but the lessons that endure are those of gratitude and resilience that my clients have taught me.
Tony Sculimbrene is a public defender based in Nashua and a graduate of the NH Bar Association Leadership Academy.