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Pro bono: Persistence and planning will pay off

Every Issue

Cite as: March 2011 85(3) LIJ, p.76

Lawyers need to have more than one plan of communication when working with pro bono clients.

Lawyers often experience difficulty maintaining contact with pro bono clients, particularly those who are homeless or marginalised. In some cases this leads to frustration on the part of lawyers and to files being closed ahead of their completion.

An examination of recently closed files from the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) Homeless Persons Legal Clinic (HPLC) showed that 24 per cent of matters were closed due to loss of client contact. In response to these findings, the HPLC initiated the Lost Contact Project to learn and respond to this problem.

Lost Contact Project

The project reviewed literature and consulted consumers and welfare agencies on methods used to maintain contact with homeless people. The literature focuses on the importance of the professional-client relationship. It is vital that lawyers who are working with pro bono clients “rethink” how they approach, communicate and respond to those clients.

Unlike a traditional relationship with a commercial client, pro bono clients often distrust services and may question the motives of professionals. Providing genuine support, recognising clients’ strengths and ensuring there is a balance of power between the professional and client will increase the likelihood of continued contact.

Spending time listening to a client’s issues and to their “story” will convey a more caring attitude that will help build trust and engagement.

Lawyers working with pro bono clients may also want to consider using practical strategies to engage clients.

If a client fails to attend an appointment, attempts to contact the client at least four times over several weeks and at different times during the day should be made. Clients may also respond to text messages rather than phone calls.

It is important to remember that clients may not have credit on their pre-paid phone to retrieve voicemail messages, and answering unknown or blocked numbers can be daunting for them. Persistence by professionals increases engagement over time.

Ensuring that a family member or support person can be contacted can make it easier to follow transient clients. Professionals can gain permission from clients to access their contact details through other government departments such as Centrelink.

A client who is hard to reach or has been disengaged is not being disrespectful. This is likely to be a symptom of their current crisis, life circumstances, or shift in priorities.

Consumer advisory group

HPLC established a consumer advisory group (CAG) in early 2006, consisting of eight people who had experienced homelessness. It consulted the CAG members for advice on how lawyers could remain in contact with homeless clients. The CAG suggested:

  • treat people with respect, express empathy, be positive and friendly in nature;
  • be genuine and caring. Good relationships provide clients with a positive experience;
  • remember it’s not what you say but how you say it, as clients pick up on detail; and
  • remember it’s about the process, not necessarily the outcome. The process needs to be positive.

Recommendations

The following recommendations arose and would be transferable to other practices dealing with hard to reach clients:

  • The lawyer or administration staff should call/text the client to remind them of every appointment.
  • When meeting the client, lawyers should begin by letting them talk and give their version of events.
  • Support the client to identify their most pressing need.
  • Use a friendly tone and open body language.
  • Lawyers should be flexible, empathetic, non-judgemental and persistent.
  • Lawyers should attempt to gain several contact numbers and permission to contact these people.
  • Lawyers should attempt to follow up clients within the first week of initial contact.
  • If clients fail to return a call or keep an appointment, lawyers should persist multiple times to re-establish contact.

The project concluded that establishing rapport with all clients at the initial meeting was vital to continued engagement. Persistence will increase the likelihood of a client remaining engaged and in contact.

For a copy of Keeping in Touch, the report from the project, contact Renee Sinclair on ph 8636 4413 or visit www.pilch.org.au/hplc.



RENEE SINCLAIR is the homeless persons’ liaison officer at the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic.

Looking to help?

To help lawyers and firms become involved in pro bono work other than legal services, the LIJ profiles a community group and its needs each month.

Name of group: Youth Projects

Contact person: Nerida Webster

Email: enquiries@youthprojects.org.au

Address: 6 Hartington Street, Glenroy

Youth Projects

Youth Projects is an independent, not-for-profit organisation established in 1984 to respond to rising youth unemployment and entrenched disadvantage in the north of Melbourne.

Over 25 years, Youth Projects has expanded its services and now delivers employment, education and training, and health and community services in north, west and central Melbourne.

Youth Projects takes an holistic approach to tackling disadvantage and homelessness.

Current needs of group

Youth Projects requires assistance interpreting relevant Acts and developing a checklist to identify legislative requirements relating to services it delivers. Apply at www.goodcompany.com.au.

goodcompany

See goodcompany at www.goodcompany.com.au for more information on this and other skilled volunteering opportunities. For more information about volunteering in general, see also:

  • www.volunteeringaustralia.org
  • www.ourcommunity.com.au

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