Students & Clients Working Together: The Importance of Open and Complete Communication

By Kaitlyn Chounet, Elder Law Clinic Student, Spring 2015

This past summer, I worked for a county law department, and while I spent a great deal of time working on important aspects of the department’s cases such as researching and drafting motions and memoranda, because the law department represents the county, I never really had the opportunity to work with a client—a real, live person. So, when I joined the Elder Law Clinic, it was my first opportunity to work with people on issues that directly impacted their lives, and I was not really sure how, or if, it would be any different. Now, having worked with clients even for just a few short weeks, I have found that there is at least one substantial difference that I think both us, as student lawyers (and actual lawyers), as well as the clients of the Elder Law Clinic need to understand. That difference is the importance of communication between clients and lawyers.

In Professional Responsibility, we learn that the attorney-client relationship depends on the client making decisions concerning the objectives of the representation and the lawyer making decisions about tactics or how those objectives are ultimately achieved. But what ultimately lies beneath those roles is the importance of communication between the client and lawyer. But that communication is not simply filling out the client information worksheet and sending it back, and it is not just telling the client what the law is or what we need from him. To be conducive to meeting the client’s needs, communication has to be open and complete from both parties. When communication is not as open and complete as it should be, the entire process is slowed and unnecessary difficulties may arise.

We should always ask if what we have said is understood by the client, and we should encourage questions from our clients because their understanding is the only way to ensure open and complete communication from us to them and from them to us. Clients coming to the Elder Law Clinic understand that, as student lawyers, we are not perfect. Sometimes we think we have been effectively communicative when we have not been clear at all, and sometimes we may not think to ask probing follow up questions, so clients should always tell us when they do not understand something and also consider providing more information than they think we may need. Clients should also see the importance of providing the documentation and information we do ask for, even if it is something the client may rather not share. We would not ask for it if we did not need it.  As student lawyers, however, we should also take care to explain why we need something in order to help put clients at ease and help them understand its importance. Ultimately, if clients and clinic students both work to be more open, honest, and complete in their communication, the Elder Law Clinic will be able to much more efficiently and effectively meet the needs of its clients, which in the end, is what we all really want.