The Vulnerable Client: Standing at the Crossroad of Compassion and Competence
MIE Legal Aid Journal, Summer 2018
5 Pages Posted: 8 Dec 2018
Date Written: 2018
“The sturdiest pillars of human morality are compassion and a sense of justice.” -- Frans de Waal.
The elderly woman seeking limited legal assistance on the phone shares a compelling story, but is the person with whom you are speaking actually the client? The precocious young girl seeking asylum with her mother has a sudden change of heart because she misses her boyfriend. Do you follow her direction? A United States citizen seeks citizenship for his alien wife. One day, she appears in your office with bruises on her face and reports that her husband has not come home for three days — he is probably with his mistress. Your paralegal has assured the woman that you will take care of her and she will win her case. How do you proceed? You represent a fourteen-year-old boy who has been charged with drug possession and resisting arrest. You have a strong defense, but he also has a pending dependency case. Moreover, he does not want to participate in the drug treatment program recommended by the Department of Children and Families. How do you advise him?
No doubt, compassion is a prerequisite for understanding and communicating effectively with a vulnerable client; however, a lawyer’s conduct must also lie within the parameters of the legal ethics rules. The rules mandate competence, diligence, effective client communication, confidentiality, and identification of conflicts of interest. Upon a casual reading, these mandates may appear to be clearly defined, but often become complex as applied — especially when compassion compels assistance and the rules suggest that it may be contra-indicated due to a conflict of interest or a client’s prerogative to direct his case.
Keywords: legal ethics, public interest law, vulnerable clients, attorney client relationship
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