Unheard Voices and a Listening Ear – a Law Student SRL Coaching Experience

Unheard Voices and a Listening Ear – a Law Student SRL Coaching Experience

Contributed by William Good, Law 3, University of Windsor and Volunteer, NSRLP

The legal education system aims to produce students who will meet the needs of the legal market.  However, it only achieves this goal in a general sense having missed the needs of potential clients who are often regarded as peripheral to the major market destination for graduating law students – large firms serving primarily corporation clients.

This is unfortunate because there is an exponential increase in those who are for financial reasons seeking alternatives to traditional (full-on representation) legal services. The legal education system is in the process of trying to imagine how to prepare students to serve the tens of thousands of Canadians who have real legal problems, but who cannot afford what many lawyers charge.  We are still without a strategy for legal services outside this box.

What makes the NSRLP unique is that it wasn’t formed to press for any particular change agenda – but to be the change that people need today. Cast adrift by the legal system because they simultaneously earn too much and not enough, self-represented litigants have a source of resources and support in the NSRLP. The NSRLP can offer assistance via law students who can offer SRLs coaching on legal procedure and generally support them through the process.

Acting as a SRL Coach

My work coaching a SRL has been both difficult and rewarding.  To me she is not my client, but someone to whom I have committed to provide aid at a time when no one else will act.  She is alone against an experienced lawyer in a system of processes that are complex and daunting to the uninitiated.

As a law student and a coach I am constantly challenged to find tools to equip her to prepare for each step of the proceedings, while staying clear of anything that could be construed as giving legal advice. My role is necessarily limited.

What I have discovered was that at a fundamental level people want their lawyer to hear them, and hear all of it. Not just the words relevant to a legal matter, but the story as a whole – what they feel about what is happening to them, what are their fears and concerns, as well as the “legally relevant” information.

Litigants want their story to be heard without judgment. Lawyers are fond of saying that their clients should have their day in court, and many litigants believe that this is where they will really be heard (however, they are often disappointed).  I don’t believe litigants are always so particular as to by whom or where their story is heard, but simply that it is heard.

My experience as a SRL Coach has shown me that we need to offer clients a real “listening ear” and a chance to tell their story. I was not expecting what “my” SRL would most appreciate about my work. It was my genuine compassion for her situation that I believe made the most difference for her, as well as for me.

Showing this empathy and compassion formed a foundation of trust between the two of us, and trust is never an easy thing to earn.  I learned that clients want above all else to be able to trust the person whom they work with. This is not something that can be fabricated or taught, only earned through time and effort.

The NSRLP provides the environment for students, such as myself, to practice the human element of the legal practice. It is the most important thing I can give to my future clients. To my surprise, it was also the thing that my SRL most wanted from me. Going forward into my legal career, I can offer the lawyer as a human being.


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Comments (3)

  • sandra olson

    it may be that YOU are a human being, but the court staff, the judge, and most certainly the opposition lawyer is not. they have a history of rudeness, lying, hiding evidence refusing to disclose evidence, avoiding discovery actions, personal attacks on the character of the self represented, abuse of process to catch the self represented off guard since if they actually followed proper procedure , the trial might be considered fair, if you cant win playing fair then the next best thing is to use all of the above behaviors to make sure you win,,, even if it is wrong. the courts and judges permit this and in fact, even participate in it, so, the soft and feeling approach is very nice, trust for you might be there,,, but how this is going to make the system more fair and honest is another thing. perhaps you could comment on this.

    March 31, 2015 at 4:21 pm
  • sandra olson

    MOST IMPORTANTLY,,, THE SELF REPRESENTED WANT A FAIR TRIAL. the same as everyone who is represented by legal counsel. in fact,,, the same as everyone in this country, we want to have confidence that if we need to approach our courts,, it is a respectful honest and fair experience, THAT IS NOT HAPPENING, HOW DOES YOUR ATTEMPT TO HEAR THE SELF REPRESENTED PROPOSE TO CHANGE THIS.,

    March 31, 2015 at 4:24 pm
  • Karin Litzcke

    William Good is quite correct in saying that getting an empathetic hearing from your lawyer/law coach is important. But an integral part of empathy is caring enough to provide the SRL with the tools to be successful (in the apparently very few cases where that’s possible… but I digress). I think Mr. Good gets that, but takes it a bit for granted as part of the relationship. Because I’ve encountered situations where a lawyer thought that it was a good choice to withhold knowledge (to keep me from straying into territory that might be “too complicated”), I believe it bears emphasizing.

    What empathy from a legal coach means to me is really listening hard enough to my conversation to see what the gaps in my knowledge are, and helping me fix them to maximize my chances of being successful.

    What I’ve found as I try to learn my way around a rather complex area of law is that I can build independent silos of understanding certain quite complex subjects, but I often can’t connect them at the foundation – in short, I don’t have the framework of legal principles on which expertise should be built. There are holes in my foundation that are sometimes ludicrously simple and self-evident once I’ve fallen into them, but for the life of me I can’t see them coming. A good coach – and I have now very fortunately found one – will listen to what I’m saying and identify where the assumptions I’m working with are flawed, or will foresee where my case will take me and ensure I have the necessary framework of understanding.

    The lack of foundation, I think, is the difference between a lawyer’s legal education, which is comprehensive, and an SRL’s legal education, which needs only to cover a specific task. But in both cases, the foundation required has to be equally large, even if, in the case of the SRL, we don’t have time to put all the bricks in it.

    I haven’t yet found a legal primer that sketches out the foundations of law – the structure, the tenets, the doctrines, the principles – for me to feel I’m on solid ground. All the effort to accommodate SRLs is going into making processes more accessible, but it’s the law itself that we need an orientation to. And there is still a protectionist wall around that – as reflected in the next blog entry (The Shut-up Culture), which begins to address the very legitimate complaint in the comment by Sandra Olson, above.

    April 10, 2015 at 4:53 pm

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