How can I help my clients have a good working relationship with their lawyer?

With close to 80% of women in family court unrepresented, you will most often be working with women who do not have a lawyer. However, you will have some clients who have lawyers and, for these women, establishing a positive and productive working relationship with their lawyer is critical to the smooth progress of their case.

Just because a woman has a lawyer does not mean that lawyer will necessarily understand the unique issues involved in handling a case involving violence within the family.

Unfortunately, there is little to no focus on violence against women or domestic violence in Ontario law schools and remarkably few opportunities for lawyers to learn about these issues once they are practising law. (See the February 2015 Toronto Star article about this.)

Legal Aid Ontario is providing domestic violence awareness training to all of its staff across the province, which is an excellent first step; however, at this time, this training is not available to members of the private bar or lawyers accepting legal aid certificates, but only to duty counsel lawyers and those providing assistance at Family Law Service Centres, law school legal clinics and over the telephone at the LAO Client Lawyer Service Centre. (The training is for ALL LAO staff, which includes many people other than lawyers – Client Lawyer Service Centre staff, District Office staff, those who work at the provincial office, Refugee Law Office staff and others.)

You may need to help a woman cope with a lawyer who does not have the sensitivity and awareness that she would like her/him to have. You may also have to support a woman in educating her own lawyer about abuse-related issues as they pertain to her family law case. Finally, you may need to help a woman prepare for and debrief from meetings with her lawyer, perhaps accompany her to those meetings and provide some advocacy.

Communication and preparation are probably the two most important elements of making a relationship with a lawyer work well. While the lawyer, as the professional, should take the lead on both of these, the better prepared a woman is, the better her relationship with her lawyer will be.

Here are some tips to assist you in supporting women work effectively with their lawyers.

  1. If a woman understands the role of the lawyer, herself and you, she will be off to a good start.

You can assist her with this by:

  • Explaining that the lawyer’s job is to give her legal advice based on the information she provides to the lawyer and to represent her views and interests in court and/or in negotiations
  • Let her know that while many lawyers are quite sympathetic, it is not their job to provide emotional support or to assist with non-legal issues she may be dealing with
  • Telling her that the more clear and detailed she is in giving information and instructions to the lawyer, as well as telling the lawyer what legal outcomes she is hoping for, the better the lawyer will be able to do her/his job
  • Encouraging her to ask the lawyer in her first appointment about such things as fees, how often the lawyer bills clients, how the lawyer wants her to communicate between meeting (phone, email etc.), with whom she should communicate (the lawyer, a law clerk, a secretary, etc.) and how quickly she can expect a response
  • Describing to her what your role can be
  1. Sorting out the logistics at the beginning can help a woman feel less anxiety about working with her lawyer.

You can assist her with this by:

  • Explaining how lawyers charge for their work:
    • Most lawyers have an hourly rate they charge, which covers their fee as well as their general overhead costs (law clerk, receptionist/secretary, rent, etc.)
    • Disbursements are the expenses the lawyer incurs on behalf of the client such as filing fees to the court, costs of photocopying, the cost of having documents formally served on another person and so on
    • Whether the woman is paying for her lawyer herself or is on a legal aid certificate, her lawyer must provide her with a bill that clearly shows how much s/he is charging in fees, with a breakdown of the time spent and on what date, as well as what the lawyer did during that period of time. The bill must also set out each disbursement
    • The retainer is a fixed amount of money that the client pays, in advance, to hire the lawyer, unless the lawyer is being paid through a legal aid certificate. The final cost of the case will almost certainly be more than the original retainer
  • Helping her find out how the lawyer’s practice works:
    • Is the office close to a transit stop?
    • Is there free parking?
    • Is it easily accessible for someone with mobility issues?
    • What are the lawyer’s office hours?
    • Does the lawyer ever see clients away from her/his office?
    • Is the waiting room private and safe?
    • Will the lawyer allow her to bring a legal support worker?
    • Does the lawyer work with interpreters?
  1. Whenever possible, a woman should come to meetings with her lawyer with an agenda or list of questions.

You can assist her with this by:

  • Creating a template of common questions for women to ask their lawyers at the initial and subsequent appointments
  1. For many women, sharing the details of their story of abuse with a stranger is extremely difficult. Many women are also reluctant to share information with their lawyer that they think may reflect badly on them. However, the more information the lawyer has, the better s/he is able to do the job of representing the woman.

You can assist women with this by:

  • Helping her prepare an outline of her story to take to the meeting or, with her permission, sending the story outline to the lawyer before the meeting so s/he can review it before the woman arrives
  • Making sure she understands that she needs to be completely honest with her lawyer if the lawyer is going to do the best job possible
  • Making sure she understands that her relationship with the lawyer is confidential and everything she says to her lawyer is privileged, which means the lawyer is not permitted to share any of that information (unless it relates to possible harm to a child) with anyone else
  1. Women should take notes during the appointment and summarize them verbally with the lawyer at the end so both of them have the same understanding of what has been said and what each of them is going to do next.

You can assist a woman with this by:

  • Providing her with a form that will allow her to easily make brief notes during her appointment
  • Building her self-confidence so she feels able to speak effectively with the lawyer
  1. Ideally, you will be able to accompany women to their lawyer’s appointments, if they want you to.

To do this effectively, before the appointment you should:

  •  Have the woman confirm with the lawyer that you will be permitted to accompany her
  • Establish with the woman what she wants your role to be. Does she want you to:
    • Take notes?
    • Remind her of questions she wants to ask?
    • Advocate on her behalf with the lawyer?
    • Provide emotional support?

The lawyer may want you to sign a confidentiality agreement for the woman’s file, so you should be prepared for this possibility.

  1. It is important for women to come to meetings with their lawyer as undistracted as possible and able to focus on the content of the meeting.

You can assist a woman with this by:

  • Strongly encouraging her to get child care and assisting her with making those arrangements
  • Assisting with safe transportation
  • Encouraging her to arrive early for her appointment so she can take a few minutes to collect her thoughts and prepare. She should also keep some time open after the appointment so she can debrief with you (if you have accompanied her)
  1. It is often difficult for a woman who is experiencing trauma as a result of the abuse to stay focused and on topic, but this is very important. She needs to be clear and direct with her lawyer so the lawyer has a good understanding of the woman’s situation and the issues she is facing.

You can assist a woman with this by:

  • Finding out from her what she needs to feel safe in the meeting with the lawyer and doing what you can to provide this for her
  • Reviewing with her everything she wants to talk about with the lawyer before the appointment
  • If you have not accompanied her to the meeting with the lawyer, meeting with her as soon as possible after to review what the lawyer has said and what tasks the lawyer has given the woman to do
  1. A woman should always keep a copy of everything she gives to her lawyer and everything her lawyer gives to her.

You can assist her with this by:

  • Providing her with some organizational tips and tools. For instance, you could suggest that she keep all her paperwork in a binder or series of binders with an indexing system that will let her quickly find any paperwork that she might need
  1. The more a woman can follow through on requests made by her lawyer, the better the lawyer can do her/his job.

You can assist a woman with this by:

  • Providing her with a checklist of follow-up tasks
  • If you accompany her to meetings with her lawyer, make notes of what the lawyer needs the woman to do
  • Meet with her to make an action plan with deadlines so she can return to her next lawyer’s meeting with all tasks completed
  • Encourage her to follow up with the lawyer’s clerk or secretary if she encounters difficulty with any of the tasks the lawyer has asked her to do
  1. A woman may experience difficulties with her lawyer and want to change lawyers.

    In some cases, particularly if the lawyer has no understanding of violence against women and is not prepared to take the woman’s instructions with respect to such aspects of her case as custody and access or a restraining order, she may feel she has no choice but to change lawyers.

    However, changing lawyers is not always effective. It will slow her case down, and it can be expensive as she will have to pay for the new lawyer to review the entire file. There is no guarantee that the new lawyer will be any better than the previous lawyer. If she is paying for her lawyer through a legal aid certificate, she may not be permitted to change lawyers.

You can assist a woman who is having difficulties with her lawyer by:

  • Helping her clearly identify the problems she is having with the lawyer. If, as is common, the problem is one of communication, she may be able to resolve it by raising her concerns with her lawyer
  • Reminding her that she needs to be assertive in her relationship with her lawyer, to stay informed and aware of what is going on in her case and to raise concerns with her lawyer as they arise
  • If the woman feels the lawyer is not addressing all of the issues she wants addressed and she is paying through a legal aid certificate, clarify the terms of the certificate. Not all certificates cover every issue a woman may want addressed
  • Providing advocacy on the woman’s behalf with her lawyer
  • Starting to accompany her to appointments if you have not done so in the past
  • Encouraging her to check out other possible lawyers before saying anything to her present lawyer. There is no sense firing the lawyer she has if she is not going to be able to retain another lawyer

For women who have a lawyer, establishing and maintaining a positive working relationship can have a significant impact both on how the woman feels about her family court experience and on the outcomes she achieves in court.

We hope these tips will assist you in your role of supporting the women you work with to create the best relationships they can with their lawyers.

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