5 Part Series: The Missing Piece, Part 5
5 Part Series: The Missing Piece, Part 5
Part 5: The Lack of Concrete Information
Today we will be concluding The Missing Piece Series by going over the fourth challenge that employees face when they enter the American Legal System: lack of knowledge and the difficulties of the client/attorney relationship.
Part 1: Vast Differences in Expectations
Different expectations about the American Legal System leads to much stress and worry when an employee finds out their attorney is often not as available to help as the employee expects. By understanding these differences, both employees and their HR managers and companies can better understand what tools may be available to reduce these ever-increasing stress levels when a lawsuit arises.
The 2002 American Bar Study found that most Americans are ill equipped to face the challenges of the judicial system.1 Survey participants expressed frustration with the delays, costs, procedures and complexity of the courts and legal system. Most Americans equate being involved in a lawsuit to having a root canal for each day the lawsuit drags on, sometimes for several years. The lack of understanding of how the system works and the lack of available information to explain many court idiosyncrasies are two of the largest contributing factors that make employees ill-prepared to navigate the legal system.
Most HR managers intuitively know there are complications anytime one engages with the court system or lawyers. Though they may not fully understand the complexities of the legal system, most HR managers and employers can relate to the pressures, costs, uneasiness, unpredictability and uncertainty faced by those who must deal with it.
The stringent requirements, rules and procedures of the legal system convey an extraordinary seriousness and create fear and apprehension among employees engaged with it. For example, imagine an employee being handcuffed, wearing an ill-fitting orange uniform and being led into a court room in the United States, making the employee a criminal in the Criminal Justice component of the U.S. Legal System. Or, imagine a company executive’s children being taken from her in a custody battle. HR managers may face this problem almost any workday. Most employees and managers never consider these possibilities, and yet legal problems, arrests and related issues can arise at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected circumstances… and are not limited to major criminals.
Almost every case in court is serious, but individuals tend to believe their personal cases are the “most serious.” This can become a problem for an employee involved in litigation because while their case may have serious consequences, it may not be as serious to the court as the employee thinks. An employee will likely run into this issue the first time in court when waiting all day for the judge to call the employee’s case.
A number of realizations may arise when an employee goes to court:
- the realization that there are many other serious cases to be heard by the court;
- the realization that the employee’s attorney has a number of other equally important clients; and
- the employee’s perception that his case is not getting appropriate attention from the judge.
Any one of these realizations can spark an ever-increasing level of frustration and even anger in some cases, and the employee’s stress goes beyond the intensity of the issue that thrust the person into the legal system in the first place. The employee realizes — but only after the lawsuit is brought — that the strict rules of the court and the sheer number of cases means the employee’s case is not getting, and will not get, the level of attention the employee believes it should. The employee likely entered the court with the belief that he would simply go to court, tell the judge his story and the magistrate would agree with him.2 After the initial appearance in court, the employee begins to see that the underlying financial or legal problem is not being resolved quickly and there will not be a quick resolution.
Part 2: Unavailable Guidance with Navigating the Legal System
Many employees believe there should be customer service representatives or counselors in the legal system that they go to for guidance, to make complaints or get detailed information to address areas of confusion. Employees want someone with experience to counsel them through both the legal system and the mental aspects of the legal matter. Lawyers are not counselors, and most lawyers are not equipped to handle the emotional aspects of a client’s case.
The idea and expectation that lawyers will explain things and “talk the employee through” the legal matter is met with the opposite reality: explanations are virtually non-existent without running up an exorbitant legal bill. One of the most difficult factors for an employee involved in an upsetting legal dispute to understand is how difficult it can be to work with an attorney, and one of the most misunderstood issues is the inherent problem of client expectations that differ from legal system realities.
When interviewed about what they needed most from their attorney, most clients expect their attorneys to act like a counselor, a consultant and even a psychologist3 In effect, they want to be taught how the legal system works and what they can expect as their case goes through the litigation process. Clients often want every detail explained, especially those workers accustomed to their health or dental plan benefits and coverage being explained in great detail. On its face, this seems like a simple expectation.
Attorneys are trained to be client advocates in and out of court. An attorney’s primary function in litigation is to advocate to the judge and to the other side’s attorney on behalf of the client. Overwhelmingly, clients fail to understand this function. This misunderstanding becomes apparent when their attorneys do not take much time to explain vital details or spend much time talking to clients during their cases, either in or out of court.
The knowledge, values, and skills taught in schools of social work can be useful tools to address many common challenges faced by lawyers.4 But most lawyers do not have this training.
A client may become disappointed when the attorney is fact-oriented, disinterested, unemotional or dismissive once court is over for the day. A client typically expects the attorney to engage in a discussion of the emotional impact of the case, confirm the magnitude of the legal problem and agree it is the worst and most urgent problem in the system. And because of the significant costs associated with lawsuit, a client generally expects the attorney to be absolutely devoted to the legal matter and totally committed to the wrongness of the opposing party.
Unsatisfied expectations tied to the misunderstanding between the role of advocate and the role of psychologist/counselor create a number of debilitating issues for any litigant in the American legal system. Clients begin to have issues with their attorneys and trust deteriorates when attorneys fail to meet clients’ expectations that the attorney should be a counselor, legal instructor and advocate.
It’s not unusual for an attorney to have no clue that a client is upset with him.5 In fact, many lawyers report that clients are usually well satisfied with their responses when asked for clarification. Attorneys with high client sensitivity understand that the need for clarification arises from the “legalese” used in initial client contacts — a problem lawyers and physicians share. If an attorney starts a conversation with terms like “retainer agreements,” “prelims,” “OSCs,” “motions to set aside,” summary judgment,” “dismissals,” “sanctions” or other technical jargon, a client’s bewilderment, frustration and anxiety is stirred.
Attorneys can better manage client expectations — the probable timeframe involved for a resolution, fees, the actual workings of the court system — by addressing common concerns up front up front that add to client stress. The problem for most clients is actually finding client-sensitive attorneys on their own. This metric – as important as it is – is almost never depicted in advertisements, online searches or other informational sources about attorney credentials and qualifications.
The quality of the working attorney-client relationship is vital to the success of the case. Clients and lawyers that work well together dramatically increase the likelihood of obtaining a favorable result. Conversely, lawyers and clients that display symptoms of a dysfunctional relationship tend to take it out on the case. Increased stress and higher costs aside, changing lawyers mid-stream signals the opposing side that problems exist. While these problems may have absolutely nothing to do with the underlying case, the opposing side may misinterpret the cause of the severed client/attorney relationship, conclude the case is in trouble and make a lower settlement offer.6(72) The problem is that it is not uncommon for a client to feel “stuck” with the attorney they selected, once the litigation proceeds and helpless to change attorneys or to provide solutions to this lack of information.
We see that the lack of knowledge of the legal system and the challenges in a client/attorney relationship can be extremely stressful for an employee with a legal problem. Coupled with the additional challenges presented in the rest of the Missing Series: the stress of the legal matter itself, the high and unexpected cost of legal help, and the unpreparedness of an employee facing a legal matter we find that an employee is under an enormous amount of stress. These factors make up an undiscussed factor of employee and financial wellness. With this in mind, Human Resources can look for possible solutions to help ease their employees’ stress.
- “Public Perceptions of Lawyers Consumer Research Findings,” American Bar Association Study, 2002.
- Legal Access Plans, L.L.C., 2013 Internal Study Client Interviews.
- “Lawyers are Counselors, Too: Social Workers can Train Lawyers to More Effectively Counsel Clients,” Stephanie K. Boys, Carrie A. Hagan, Valerie Voland, ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2011, 12(2).
- Legal Access Plans, L.L.C., 2012 Internal Study Client Interviews.
- “How to Avoid Firing Your Lawyer,” By Eric J. Parker, Parker Scheer LLP RSDSA Review. Fall 2007.
The Missing Piece Series
Part 1: Explore an Unknown Factor of Financial Wellness
Part 2: Employee Stress Caused by the Legal Problem Itself
Part 3: The High and Unexpected Cost of Legal Help
Part 4: A Legal Problem Strikes an Unprepared Employee
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