Lawyer as Counselor

September 7, 2023

Reading time: 3 minutes

I’ll never forget the pride I felt when one of the partners stopped by my office to congratulate me the day I found out that I passed the bar.  He firmly shook my hand and greeted me as “Counselor.”  While I relished the title, little did I know how much “counseling” would actually be a part of my job. A lawyer can be referred to as an attorney, jurist, solicitor and advocate, but perhaps counselor is one of the more accurate ways to describe not only the person, but the role we play when assisting a client.

ABA Model Rule 2.1 identifies a lawyer as counselor and instructs that the lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.  In providing such advice, the Rule permits the lawyer to refer not only to the law but also moral, economic, social and political factors that may be relevant to the client’s circumstances.  In other words, you can (and perhaps sometimes should) act as your client’s trusted confidante, or even just a set of ears offering encouragement and honest advice (of course within the bounds of good judgment and discretion!).

So what does this mean in practice?  Consider how you may refine your approach during a prospective client call or initial intake meeting.  At the outset of any legal matter, you will likely ask your client to explain their side of the story or provide a timeline of events.  Oftentimes, the client will give details about events you may not deem relevant or go off on tangents that do not contribute to their legal position.  However, what they may need in that moment is simply a listening ear from a lawyer who can offer assurance or encouragement when possible.  After all, your client might be facing extremely difficult circumstances or embroiled in litigation for the first time. Lawyers typically grow more comfortable dealing in conflict each and every day, and we can be lulled into forgetting our clients may feel uncomfortable in such an unfamiliar process.  So rather than watching the clock and methodically documenting their personal information, put on your Counselor hat and offer the empathy and peace of mind only someone with legal expertise can provide. 

And, while you work to develop your counseling skills, keep these additional tips in mind during your next client meeting:

  • While a lawyer is not generally expected to give advice until asked by the client, you may need to offer advice if the client proposes a course of action that is likely to have adverse legal consequences.
  • To demonstrate that you are working together toward a common goal, use “we” and “us” instead of “you” and “your.” By paying attention to the language you use, you can build your client’s trust and confidence in you. 
  • Be sure to advise your client of forms of dispute resolution which may be reasonable alternatives to immediately pursuing litigation in accordance with Rule 1.4 After speaking with them, you and your client may agree why this may be a better legal avenue to pursue, both emotionally and strategically. 
  • If consulting with a professional in another field – such as a psychologist or accountant – is warranted, your best advice may involve referring your client to another trusted advisor to specifically address their family or financial needs.

Keeping in mind that lawyers are not therapists, your unique role as Counselor can take many forms. Depending on the circumstances of your case and your client’s needs, you can act as their staunch legal advocate while still providing empathy, guidance and patience. No couch required. 

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