Dealing with aggressive clients can be a shock for lawyers who start doing pro bono work with homeless people. Karen Rose hears some good advice that all such lawyers should know.
Dealing with angry and aggressive people was a learning curve for me. I had to learn to be assertive” says Lindy Antoniou, a community services worker at one of Sydney’s crisis drop-in centres for homeless people.
It is also a learning curve, and often a steep one, for many lawyers involved in pro bono work with homeless clients.
Being at the receiving end of aggression is not only distressing and intimidating for practitioners, but defusing the situation can sometimes seem almost impossible.
With a diploma in social sciences and a graduate diploma in counselling and psychotherapy, Lindy has worked with homeless people for five years and has some sound advice for lawyers who are faced with aggression when providing advice at legal clinics catering for homeless people.
Adopt a common sense approach
“It’s important to [pay attention to] the cues when a person first comes in,” says Lindy. “Those cues may be in their body language.” Assessing these cues, Lindy explains, will let you know what degree of aggression you are dealing with so that you can respond accordingly. Where a client is behaving aggressively, Lindy advises that lawyers adopt a common sense approach: “Be firm. Let them know that you can see they are angry but you can’t deal with them while they’re in this state so they should come back when they feel better. Suggest they go for a cup of coffee.”
This is a valuable piece of advice. When a client is angry or agitated, it is often an automatic response to attempt to calm them, when in reality they may be beyond looking at the situation rationally. At this juncture, your client is most likely in no condition to be receiving legal advice. Similarly, if a client is intoxicated: “Let them know that it may be difficult to work with them right now and ask them if it is possible for them to come back when they are not intoxicated.” Asking your client politely to leave will avoid the conflict escalating.
The importance of paying attention extends beyond tuning in to your clients’ body language. According to Lindy, lawyers need to be aware of the “physical environment” at the clinic where they are giving advice. This means being aware of the layout of the room that you are advising in, as well as any relevant safety measures, such as sitting near the door so that you can exit quickly (and without having to pass by the client).
Not sitting near the door, Lindy says, is one of the most common mistakes made by lawyers during advice sessions. In reality, the space offered by a legal clinic may not allow for this, but an awareness of organisational safety procedures is important for any lawyer providing advice in this kind of environment.
The perils of lawyer speak
When communicating with homeless people, it’s “about clarifying [your advice] in simple terms,” Lindy says, before distinguishing between “lawyer speak” and “street talk”. If your client can understand you, this is naturally going to reduce their frustration (and your own). “Let them know you’re here to help without judging or dealing out the law,” says Lindy.
Lindy points out that many homeless people place lawyers in the same category as police and other official bodies. In other words, there is often a mistaken assumption that lawyers possess punitive powers. This misconception often extends to staff at the crisis drop-in centre where Lindy is employed.
“We had a visitor [to the centre] who had been living in Australia for 24 years and never obtained permanent residency,” says Lindy. “The visitor was concerned I would report her to immigration and that they would come here and take her away.” Lindy notes that a way for lawyers to address this issue is to “clarify confidentiality as well as your role”.
“While it may be obvious to you that your client communications are confidential and that your function is not one of law enforcement, this may not be immediately apparent to your client. Being clear at the outset will help avoid agitation or aggression on the part of the client due to any misapprehensions about your role.”
Of course, clarity can be hard to come by if your client is agitated and as a result won’t allow you to get a word in edgeways. In these circumstances: “Often it is best to let [the client] vent, then clarify who you are, what you are doing, how you can help,” says Lindy. “Don’t make huge promises. Remind them that it is a process which takes time and ask [them] if they have any questions.”
Don’t take it personally
Lindy says that it is worth remembering that the anger displayed by the client may not really be directed at the lawyer. It is a matter of determining where the anger is coming from and “assessing that very quietly”. The client may be frustrated “at society”, she adds. This is hardly surprising when you consider that Homelessness Australia names poverty, unemployment and a shortage of affordable housing as causes of homelessness, in addition to factors such as family breakdown, mental illness, sexual assault, addiction and social isolation.
Admittedly, bearing in mind that the barrage of verbal abuse aimed in your direction isn’t personal is easier said than done. It’s essential to remember, however, that in general these are individuals faced with huge challenges. Empathy is important. “A negative start to a relationship can always be amended,” she says. “I have encountered many occasions where I have built rapport with a visitor [to the drop-in centre] and in an instant the relationship turns ugly.”
This is likely to be a familiar scenario for lawyers who interact frequently with homeless clients. “The relationship needs to be worked on in the sense that I may have to step back and do something to show that I am here to help,” explains Lindy.
Putting yourself first
Lindy also advises lawyers to adopt “self-care” strategies following distressing encounters with clients. By self-care,
Lindy is referring to the techniques that can be used on a personal level to mentally move past negative encounters.
“The workers [at the drop-in centre] learn the ability to self-care very quickly,” says Lindy. “Each one of us has different ways of dealing with the bad stuff to ensure that we do not take it home with us.”
Although techniques for self-care vary between individuals, it is important for lawyers to give some thought to methods they can use to mentally distance themselves from the emotions that may result from negative confrontations with clients.
While this may appear to be a self-indulgent exercise, incidents involving homeless people have the potential to be extremely distressing due to issues surrounding mental health problems and drug and alcohol abuse. All people, regardless of profession, have methods for dealing with emotional encounters, and knowing when self-care is required requires a level of self-awareness on the part of practitioners.
Failing to distance yourself mentally from the situation may have harmful consequences in terms of your future interactions with homeless clients. Self-care is also important for your mental wellbeing after exposure to what can be an emotionally-charged environment.
Tapping into clinic resources
Practitioners giving advice at legal clinics catering for homeless and disadvantaged people don’t have to feel isolated. Instead, we can utilise an often untapped treasure trove of resources: the staff. “Work with us,” says Lindy. “Most of the visitors [to the centre] have a level of trust with the staff and there are a variety of ways that staff can assist lawyers.”
Staff can liaise with clients before interviews, assess their condition (i.e. if they are aggressive, intoxicated or under the influence of drugs) and update lawyers with any important information about the client before their interview.
By checking in with clinic staff, lawyers can often avoid a volatile encounter completely if they are aware at the outset that a client is in no condition to be receiving advice. In circumstances where clients would prefer their case worker to sit in on their session for support, clinic staff are also generally in a better position to arrange this.
Don’t be deterred
Dealing with aggression is a reality for many lawyers who provide pro bono advice to homeless people. While this kind of hostility can understandably make you weak at the knees, the presence of aggressive clients does not have to be a deterrent.
Adopting a common sense approach (along with self-care techniques when necessary), utilising staff resources, bearing in mind the underlying causes of aggression and communicating clearly with your client can be of great assistance in defusing tense situations.
Karen Rose is a former solicitor at a corporate firm who is now pursuing pro bono work.