HOW CANCER HAS MADE ME A BETTER LAWYER

By Ally Kennedy, Founder of Amiga

A close family member of mine was diagnosed with a rare and serious cancer and I have stepped into the role as advocate and caretaker. Cancer is scary and overwhelming and there is a lot to learn and know. As my family member and I navigate the endless amounts of doctors appointments that are filled with information that sounds like it is told in a foreign language, I have been reflecting on my clients’ experience when they come to me for legal services. 

 

As I said in the Amiga Power Hour on marketing, people usually do not come to lawyers and doctors when things are going well in their lives. Oftentimes our clients find their ways to us when they are going through one of the most difficult times of their lives. Burnout in our profession is well-documented. Unfortunately burnout can lead to lawyers being easily frustrated with clients, not thoroughly explaining the case and necessary information, and losing sight of the client’s emotional experience. 

Something that has impressed me on my journey through cancer as an advocate and caregiver is the extreme level of patience, care, and understanding with which our entire family has been treated in every visit, phone call, billing issue, and more. I want to ensure that my clients feel the same way about my law firm. 

Here are a few things I have learned so far:

 

1. Clients are scared. Let them talk.

 

When a potential client walks into your office, you likely understand the solutions that you can offer within minutes of the consultation starting. It is easy to steer the conversation so you can start explaining options. However, the client is afraid. He wants to explain everything that is going on, including his feelings and his fears, even if they are not relevant to your legal analysis. 

 

Our best experiences with doctors have been those in which the doctor came in and started the conversation with, “Tell me what is going on.” Before meeting with us, the doctors have already reviewed the reports so they already know the diagnosis and the action steps, but they allow us to talk it out, put things in our own words, and sum up our understanding of the situation. Only after we do that does the doctor start talking. 

 

Now I like to give clients the first 20-30 minutes of the consultation to talk without interruption. I will sometimes ask clarifying questions but I try to do as little talking as possible. Only after that do I begin to discuss legal options. 


 

2. Summarize their Pain Point Points To Show You Understand. 

 

A client wants to know that you can solve the problem that is causing her pain, but she also wants to know that you understand how she feels. A powerful way show that you understand her concerns is to summarize and reflect back to the client what she has said to you. For example, “I know that this is a scary process and that you are worried for your children and your family. I understand that your legal situation causes a lot of stress. I know that this is overwhelming. Let’s talk about your case and what strategies we can use to help you out.”

 

Though I had done this somewhat before, I have become very intentional about it now. It makes a huge difference from the client’s perspective. 


 

3. Clients Want to Know You Will Fight For Them. 

 

As lawyers we often have to be the bearers of bad news. Sometimes a case will lose no matter what you do. You can gear up for the best defense possible, but the end result will not bring the solution the client hopes for. 

 

Lately we have received a string of bad news from doctors but what has softened the blow is that every time the doctor gives us the “real deal” of the situation, he then tells us that he will never stop fighting for us. He says that no matter what happens, he is going to continue to look for different solutions. If a problem comes up, he will work hard to solve it. There are no guarantees of what the outcome will be, but our medical team says that they will never give up. There are no words to describe how reassuring that feels. 

 

Every time I have to tell a client that we likely will not be able to win the case, I say, “I want you to know that I am going to fight for you. I will do everything possible for your case. Though it may not bring the results that you hope for, I will never stop trying.” I have had clients breakdown crying (men included!) saying, “Thank you so much. All I want is a lawyer who will be on my side.”


 

4. Clients are Overwhelmed. Make it Easy for Them to Understand.

 

The law is a foreign language to most laypeople. Most lawyers have trouble understanding areas of law outside the areas in which they practice. As a client, it is even more difficult to understand because of the emotions and stress that a legal situation causes. 

 

I recently had an experience with a doctor who launched into his presentation without outlining what he was going to talk about first. The concept itself was difficult to understand and the subject material (life and death) was emotionally hard to hear. It was not until halfway through the presentation that I could even squeeze in a question to try to understand his point. He was talking very fast and fluently in a language that I did not speak. 

 

What I learned from that experience was the following:

  • Outline (orally or in writing) what you are going to talk about. For example, “First I am going to explain the [legal provision that you are explaining]. Then I am going to discuss what that means for your case. Finally, I am going to discuss what legal options you have along with the next steps.”
  • After you get through each portion of your presentation, pause and ask if the client has any questions.
  • If the client seems confused but says that he understands, you can ask for the client to give a summary of his understanding.
  • Provide a handout or infographic that gives an overview of the process so that the client can review the information after he leaves the office.

 

Also, every time you communicate with a client in writing, be sure to give a summary of the steps in the process time and time again.When you provide them with a copy of something (a filing, motion, receipt notice, etc) be sure to explain what it is. (Check out our U Visa Client Communication letters to help accomplish this in U Visa cases,)


 

5. Ask: Do You Have Any Questions? 

 

Many of us attorneys are outgoing and outspoken. We have no problem jumping in and asking questions. However, speaking to an attorney is an intimidating experience for many people and they may not feel comfortable speaking up. By asking, “Do you have any questions?”, you give the client the opportunity to tell you if something isn’t clear. 

 

What other tips do you have for making a client feel like she receives individualized service? 

 

P.S. I would remiss if I did not mention the excellent team of doctors, nurses, support staff, and everyone in between at the Swedish Cancer Institute. Thank you for all that you do. 


About your Ally in Life, Business and Law:

Alexandra "Ally" Kennedy is a national award-winning attorney and the founder of AMIGA Lawyers and Alexandra Kennedy Immigration Law.. After becoming a mother, and in a matter of 3 months, Ally transformed her practice from earning in pesos to earning 6-figures and she is passionate about teaching attorneys how they can do the same. Ally empowers lawyers to be the CEOs of their law firms with her weekly blog, webinars, and conferences where she teaches step-by-step how to do the work they love while running a profitable legal business. Ally lives outside of Seattle with her partner and their 5 children.