Whose Story Is It Anyway?

The client lives a story. The advisor also lives a story. What happens as their stories inevitably converge?

Professors Shaffer and Elkins, Legal Interviewing and Counseling (4th Ed. West Group 2004) introduce law students to the counselor’s role. They have much to say to any professional advisor who undertakes to counsel clients. Below I have paraphrased some of the authors’ main points in bold. My comments are in italics.

- Gerald Le Van
  • Your client isn’t the problem. Your client is a person who has problems.

This is the first fork in the road. Whose story is paramount: the client’s story or the advisor’s? Both play out concurrently. Which story has the higher priority? Which gets the advisor’s primary attention?

  • Your client lives a story (adventure, journey, drama, saga). You are part of that story.

Your story and your client’s stories are inevitably intertwined, at least for a time.

  • The typical lawyer selects operative facts from the client’s story, recasts them into narrow manageable categories, then channels the client’s problem into the legal system for solution. Interviewing is getting at these operative facts. Counseling is telling the client what the law is.

“If you’re a hammer, everything’s a nail”. That’s how lawyers tease life insurance agents who pitch their policies as client cure-alls. This rubric suggests the agent’s storied pursuit of commissions skews the client’s story. Other advisors share the same temptation: to view the client’s story selectively in terms of what the advisor is licensed to charge for.

  • Instead, try to understand the whole of the story from the client’s perspective. It’s the client’s drama. The lawyer is the audience, the client the playwright. Let the client tell the story. Become engaged in the client’s storytelling. Listen as would a sympathetic companion. Listen with, not listen at.

Good advice for any advisor. Park your own story until your client has completed hers. Listen attentively – an engaged but silent audience at the client’s play.

  • An authoritarian lawyer cuts herself off from the client’s story, retreating into her own world. The legal persona is a mask the authoritarian lawyer presents to the client. Unchecked, the legal persona becomes the lawyer’s world view. What I do becomes who I am.
A persona is an actor’s mask. We advisors wear personas that project our professional roles and insulate our privacy from clients’ curiosity. The hazard is that our masks conceal those portions of our personal stories that clients are entitled to share – our empathy, understanding, concern, our underlying humanity.
  • The authoritarian lawyer tries to take over the client’s choices and decisions. Controlling the client becomes paramount. Emotionally and unconsciously, the authoritarian lawyer treats the client as a child, and the client treats the lawyer as a domineering parent – often a father figure.
Here the advisor’s story trumps the client’s: “Father/Mother knows best.” Later on, the authors and I discuss the unconscious processes of transference and counter-transference at work in every advisor-client relationship.

  • Instead of an authority figure, the authors suggest that the lawyer-counselor become a temporary companion in the client’s story (though not necessarily a friend), a companion who has specialized knowledge that is valuable to the client’s ongoing story that can improve its outcome.
Here’s how I would strike the balance between the stories: the trusted advisor and counselor –companion adds his/her specialized knowledge, judgment, expertise and maturity to the client’s narrative in search of better outcomes.

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