By Anna Johansson • March 08, 2017•Careers
In the high powered world of legal careers, female lawyers tend to congregate in a few key areas. You may work in family law (including covering domestic violence cases) or be drawn to international rights law (including issues surrounding women’s rights abroad). Both fields hold clients who may be especially traumatized and vulnerable. It can be especially difficult for these clients to trust an outside figure, even one who is there to help.
Regardless of what specialty you choose, however, women lawyers often face a general attitude of skepticism and distrust simply because we’re women in a male dominated field. We often need to work twice as hard to build rapport with our clients.
Starting Out: Face-To-Face
One of the best ways to improve attorney-client relationships is through face-to-face communication. Show up and present yourself in a professional manner from the first meeting. Though you may think dressing down will relax your client, breaking from your standard “lawyer clothes” can actually make them feel more uncertain. Offer them an expected presentation coupled with a conversation that shows you’ve done your due diligence, and do this in person, if possible.
If you can’t meet in person, today’s technology generally makes it possible to still meet your clients face-to-face, digitally. Integrated professional communication software featuring video and voice calling allows you to move beyond the traditional phone call and bring added nuance to your conversation. Often, that’s what matters. When your client sees your face and can read the compassion in your body language, they are more likely to trust you.
Voice communication also encourages small talk. You may not think small talk has a significant place in your relationship with clients, and as a woman, you may actually steer away from it because it can seem “soft” in such a masculine profession.
Leaving room for these minor exchanges can be extremely valuable in developing a relationship with someone who’s feeling vulnerable.
Be Clear On Context
Another key part of building trust during early client meetings comes from understanding your client’s personal context. That doesn’t mean you need to know every detail of their personal history, but rather that you should understand some of their cultural norms. This is especially important if you’re working as an international lawyer. If you enter into a case with a misunderstanding of what undergirds the conflict, you may misdirect your questions, overlook key findings, and generally treat your client and other contacts in ways that leave them uneasy.
Context also matters when navigating different kinds of privilege relationships. Not only are lawyers predominately male, the profession is also predominately white in racial composition.
This means that white female lawyers need to have an understanding of juror bias in the courtroom, particularly when working with clients who are people of color. Acknowledging one's own privilege – as well as cultural norms around the law, police, and authority – can be valuable when building trust with your clients.
Handle With Care
Finally, many people dealing with the legal system are dealing with significant trauma. In general, female lawyers may have an advantage working with these individuals – we may come across as less threatening or otherwise more trustworthy to those who have been harmed. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t more we can do to better assist our clients.
Training with the Trauma-Informed Legal Advocacy Project can help legal professionals handle issues like domestic violence, sexual assault, and discrimination with appropriate knowledge and sensitivity. One part of the training even focuses specifically on building trust with those who have experienced trauma, while another section targets safe interviewing practices around traumatic triggers.
A strong relationship is the first line of defense in your relationship with your client, but you can’t assume you’ll gain that trust easily. You have to earn it. Set yourself up for success by being open to your clients’ needs and bringing your professional best to each meeting. Your presence and commitment will form the foundation for building trust.