Called Out for Client Centered Representation; Please Do So Again
Recently, our office was called out by the prosecution in an appellate brief for our office’s philosophy of client centered representation and, why, in the opinion of that prosecutor, client centeredness was not the proper representation basis for our office. His basic argument was since lawyers are the experts in the law, clients have a duty to take the advice of the lawyer and the lawyer does not have a duty to consider the client’s desires other than the most basic of what plea to enter, whether to testify or not, and whether to have jury trial or not.
After thinking about this for a while, I researched the idea of client centeredness from other professions. In the 1930s, Carl Rogers developed the client centered therapy model, known as person centered therapy, for mental health treatment. In essence, the role of the therapist was to be genuine, have an unconditional positive regard for the client, to be empathetic. This idea evolved in mental health practice over the next half century. By the 1990s, the model of client centered representation was being taught in law school ethics classes. It has been described as lawyers are experts in the law but only clients are experts on their own lives. As such, to represent a client effectively, lawyers must take into account the expertise of the client on the client’s life when giving legal advice. While lawyers were later than therapists to come to this type of conclusion regarding working with clients, it has none the less taken root in our practice in a positive way.
Moving from our former attorney centered practice to client centered practice was not without its bumps along the way. Some lawyers left us to pursue other opportunities. Some staff members left as well. Other lawyers and staff adapted and grew to embrace this model of representation. As we hire and train new lawyers and other staff, this model of representation is what we teach and expect in the practice of law in our office.
When we think about how we can improve our services, we try to frame everything we do from this lens. Among the things we changed when we used that lens were how we answer the phone, schedule appointments, communicate with clients and families, conduct jail visits and prison visits, redesign the phone tree, and extend office hours. We also rearranged our courtroom representation assignments, how we plan trial and mitigation strategies, and what to do when investigating client cases using client centered representation as the place to begin our work for our clients. We were very intentional in thinking about the needs of our clients when we designed our new office space. Our training program focuses not only on skill building but also on communication with clients and others. When we hire, we are looking for people who relate well to other people in addition to their legal or other skills. We try to think of ways to make things better for the clients in big and small ways.
Correspondingly, we try to respond to client and family complaints from that same framework, understanding that the client is the person with something to lose if things do not go well or we are unable to communicate effectively on behalf of the client. The onus is on us to fix the relationship with the client when an issue arises in representation if possible. Client centeredness is not always the easiest benchmark for representation. Occasionally, there is pushback by lawyers or staff, usually momentary. It ceases when we each and collectively stop and reflect that the clients are the reason we are here. The clients do not want to be in the situation that puts them in connection with us. Moreover, we will never know as much about the clients and their circumstances as they do. This practice model gives us the focus and patience we need to do quality work for the number of clients we have.
For us, the good part about client centered representation means clients are more willing to trust our advice during a very trying life period because we have listened to them about their lives. The attorneys make better presentations on behalf of their clients because the clients share more about themselves so we can locate services needed for our clients to succeed and present substantive positive information about our clients to the courts and prosecutors. The attorneys and staff are better satisfied in their work because the majority of the clients are not unhappy and complaining about the representation received. Our clients come by the office to tell us how well they are. Or, if they are in trouble, they are pleased that we are their lawyers because the clients tell us they know we will try to help them as much as we can. For our clients, I hope they feel heard, acknowledged, and are active participants in their own cases.
I challenge all of you to look at everything you do in your office or your individual practices with the client centered focus in mind and see what you can change to make the whole legal system better for your clients. The more intentional the focus on our clients and their needs, desires, and wishes within the scope of representation, the better quality of work for all involved, and we hope, the better result for the clients. I know our office still has work to do in this area. It requires vigilance to stay client centered. It is worth the effort. With this experience behind us and looking forward into the future, for our office there is no other path than a client centered practice.
Call us out again.
This is the opinion of the author and not the Georgia Public Defender Council.