Q. Rather than focus on charges that may be tough to beat, my client repeatedly insists that she wouldn’t be prosecuted at all if she were white. As a white woman, how can I get her off this racist rant?
A. As attorneys, we are trained to spot the issues in our cases, research the law, and apply the law to facts which may enable us to serve our clients’ best interests. We prefer to focus on what we perceive to be the “merits” of the case and regard our client’s digressions as time-consuming distractions.
But lawyers who limit their focus to narrow legal issues are only focused on one part of the job. We don’t represent “issues.” We represent people — people who bring their own emotions, fears, experiences and perspectives to each case.
A world-class oncologist who treats the tumor but neglects the patient is only doing half the job. The same is true of lawyers, whose bedside manner is often critical to successful outcomes, clear communications, fact-gathering and informed client decisions.
We are not just “attorneys at law,” but “counselors at law” as well. The value we bring to each client lies not only in our legal analysis and advocacy, but in our ability to listen to our clients, help them manage their emotions and get them to focus on the task at hand.
Our first and most important job is to listen. Without knowing the facts of her case, I cannot determine the extent to which her views may be justified. Rather than dismiss her concerns as a “racist rant,” I hope that you have fully investigated the facts and circumstances giving rise to her feelings.
Assuming that you have done so and do not believe that these facts will bolster her defense, there are two steps to getting your client to focus on the issues at hand:
1. Validate – clients confronting the legal system need to know that they are not alone. Even if you do not share her perspective, a little bit of empathy for your client’s anxieties and fears can go a long way to earning trust, reducing tension, and fostering a productive attorney-client relationship. Regardless of the merits of the case, it’s easy to understand a minority client’s fear that systemic racism may hurt her in court. Even though you’ve heard it all before, give your client some space to express her concerns so that she knows at least one person in our legal system who still has her back; and
2. Redirect – as her counsel, explain that you must both deal with life on life’s terms. Without debating her perspectives, you may speak from your own experience about how the legal system will respond to the facts of the case and the evidence the State will present against her. Though your client may have opportunities to reform the system down the road, let her know that, at present, you need her help in constructing an effective defense.
Just as your client must deal with the realities of her case, you must deal with the realities of your client. Attempting to shut her down and stifle these remarks won’t make them go away — it may even give her the feeling, however misguided, that the “white woman” she hired is part of the problem.