A Three-Part Strategy For Excellent Consulting in Pro Bono Casework

Lawyers often discuss the best and most positive methods of advising clients, then, we fine-tune, relearn, and employ these methods through practice.  There are indeed many listening and speaking techniques which it behooves the practitioner to implement, or, at a minimum to have tried at some point.  Many such techniques have to do with being a careful, inquiring listener and ensuring that the consultation itself is an avenue of fleshing out the nuances of the client’s grievance.  When I read case law that harkens to the virtues of “airing out” the facts of a dispute as a party’s inviolable right, I like being reminded that airing out facts is alive and well in our legal system, albeit idealistically.  But, prior to an actual public hearing on the facts, the dispute resolution process begins during the consultation; also at this stage and during this process comes a game-plan were certain key decisions are made.

I have been doing pro bono consultations and casework since going into practice three years ago.  The demand is one of the things about pro bono work that makes me take more of it, but there’s also the appreciation I get; my clients express a deep gratitude to me for the time, energy, and experience that I put forward.  It is tough to keep the pressure on though; the prospect of winning a case from the underdog’s perspective is daunting.  Here are my tips to dealing with tough clients and becoming demoralized by their potentially unfavorable circumstances:

1) Before you begin, reflect on your own biases or mood and how that will affect the mechanics and dynamic of your consultations.  This is subdivided step with two points of analysis: will it be a conversation that is going to be amazing and productive, where nothing can get you down?  Or, has your day been chaotic and seemingly unmanageable, are you going to have to deliver a dire analysis about their situation?  In either case, enter into your appointments knowing that consulting pro bono clients is a static situation; like the practice of law itself, there are dramatic highs and devastating lows.  Be mindful that whatever shape the current day has taken, you’ll have a chance to have more of an impact and make bolder progress during the day or appointment that follows.

2) Spend the first 50% of the consult listening.  Listen hard and be compassionate.  Ask what the client has been feeling and invite for them to cut loose.  Many clients are about to explode when they walk in the room, they have not had a proper venting session, you are providing that.  Lend them an ear.  Spend the time listening carefully and silently formulating the plan of action that you will suggest to them.  They will appreciate your calmness and learn that your advice is a key part of the process they are engaged in.

3) Be firm with your advice: interrupt and provide guidance if necessary and if time is tight.  You can take the floor to explain your analysis and experience.  Sometimes if a client gets hysterical this is hard, the consult seems like, well, one of those bad days of prolonged lows.  Take a break from the talk, leave the room and get a drink of water.  When you come back, you’ll notice that a more productive and civilized atmosphere has illuminated the dynamic.

Taking a more structured and methodological approach to your consults can significantly aid when tacking on the often harsh and unpredictable circumstances faced by your pro bono client.

Written By: Ian Franzel


Ian Franzel has a solo practice in Real Estate, Probate, and Debtor/Creditor cases, and is also a volunteer attorney at Housing Justice Project, the KCBA Neighborhood Legal Clinics, and is an organizer/volunteer attorney at The Young Lawyers Division Public Library Walk-In Clinic.

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