Overcoming Communication Barriers with Personal Injury Clients
BY KORINNE R. MORRIS, ACP
If you work with the catastrophically injured and surviving family members of individuals who have lost their lives in the most tragic and unexpected ways, then you most certainly have discovered that many of your firm’s clients seek and require your mental and emotional support more than any other service you are prepared to provide. In many instances, these individuals are navigating a rocky recovery from what is likely the worst experience of their lives. These clients who have endured a sudden tragedy or loss, may now be living with unimaginable physical and/or emotional pain, and are struggling to deal with their new normal. Their life has been changed forever. To boot, now they must become a party to a lawsuit, and the case may be their one hope for justice or financial relief to attempt to make them whole again. These unfortunate circumstances are what have brought you into the lives of these individuals. From their perspective, communicating with you becomes forever tied to this pain.
Unlike most business relationships, we are in the unique position that when we must contact a client, we are dredging up painful thoughts, feelings, and memories they likely otherwise devote their time to avoiding. We continuously, albeit inadvertently, reopen one wound or another nearly every time we have contact with them. The reality is that while lawyers, paralegals and other support staff have varying degrees of legal training and experience, most legal professionals are not trained psychotherapists or crisis counselors. There may be times when we feel wholly inadequate or unprepared to process and respond to a client’s emotional outpouring.
Communicating with personal injury clients can be a delicate and multifaceted balancing act. We must be mindful of many priorities when speaking with clients. We must take the time to give them our undivided attention, repeatedly steer them back on topic, and work to obtain factual responses while simultaneously remaining sympathetic and sensitive to their specific circumstances. Meanwhile, our responses must also be ethical, as we must take care not to say anything that may be construed as medical advice or, in the case of nonlawyers, legal advice.
My legal career began with employers who primarily represented financial institutions and real estate developers. My transition into communicating with personal injury clients was anything but a smooth one. I was not prepared to suddenly be consoling mothers who were grieving the loss of a child or dealing with the rage of discovering their child had been molested by a trusted religious leader. Even more difficult, I was blindsided the first time a client told me she could no longer bear her suffering and had decided she was better off taking her own life. Clients with brain injuries, in particular, often make such statements, placing a great burden on the person receiving this information. Most of us simply are not trained for this. Moving forward, I quickly had to learn and develop ways to handle these communications effectively and to respond appropriately.
One of the most important lessons I learned early on was to make every effort to familiarize myself with the general symptoms of the client’s medical conditions. These symptoms have the power to critically impact your client’s ability to communicate effectively with you and vice versa. For example, understanding the symptoms of a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can make all the difference when trying to bridge a communication gap with your injured client. Undoubtedly, additional time must be set aside for communications with TBI clients, along with a healthy dose of patience. Memory loss issues can contribute to a myriad of communication problems. Be prepared to speak slowly and likely repeat yourself multiple times. We must also remain patient and compassionate when the same client calls again the following day asking for an update on their case because they have no recollection of the prior day’s conversation. Other factors such as chronic pain requiring narcotic pain medication may also play a role in these challenging communications.
For both TBI and PTSD clients, it is critical that we regularly encourage them to follow medical advice and seek professional care for ongoing anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Our clients’ mental health must be equal in priority to their physical recovery. Many clients suffering from PTSD avoid seeking counseling due to the difficulty in facing their trauma. Gentle and friendly reminders from us can motivate clients to get back into counseling and may lead to reduced suicidal tendencies.
Often, when a client becomes emotionally overwhelmed during a communication, the most helpful and ethical reaction is simply to listen. When I finally allowed myself to stop panicking over what to say, I realized that most injured clients and survivors don’t need me to say anything at all – they just want to be heard. More than anything, they want to know that the attorney and staff handling this horrific matter truly care about them or their loved one. Feeling understood brings the client comfort. This allows them to trust you in your role and helps break down walls that act as communication barriers.
PREPARATION IS ESSENTIAL
The key to any successful relationship is communication. Successful client communications require preparation. Results are often the evidence of our level of preparation. Proper planning should leave each client feeling as if they are our only client.
Before picking up the phone to call a client for any reason, take a moment to do the following:
- Be familiar with the latest developments in the case
- Anticipate any likely questions the client may raise during the call
- Minimize distractions and be prepared to provide your undivided attention
- Ensure you have adequate time to avoid rushing the call
- If the call is likely to be an extended one, prepare your mind and body (grab a snack, refill your coffee, take some deep breaths, etc.)
One of the most important yet often overlooked considerations we should make prior to contacting a client is to take notice of the date. Do your best to be aware if you are reaching out to the client on a painful anniversary. Failure to do so has the potential to be emotionally devastating for your client.
Neglecting to prepare adequately can result in making a rushed call to inquire whether your client can be available for a deposition on a certain date, only to later realize that you just called on the birthday of their deceased loved one yet you failed to acknowledge this during the call. Not only can this be hurtful to your client, but the memory of it may negatively impact all your future communications with them.
A SHARED GOAL
A client’s ease in communicating with their legal professionals is rooted in trust. The more trust that exists, the less anxiety a client will experience concerning their case. This significantly increases a client’s overall satisfaction level with those working on their behalf. Successfully developing and maintaining channels of open communication with our clients is essential. Without client cooperation, trust, and faith in the work that we are doing, it wouldn’t be possible to achieve the successful outcomes that we do.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Korinne R. Morris, ACP, is an Advanced Certified Paralegal in Product Liability and E-Discovery. She is the senior paralegal at Harris Lowry Manton LLP (HLM) where she is a dedicated member of Steve Lowry’s team and primarily works on product liability and medical malpractice cases. Korinne leads an HLM sponsored Certified Paralegal study program and is the firm’s Lunch & Learn Coordinator. She also currently serves as the Ethics Chair of NALA|The Paralegal Association and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.