The Importance of Effective Interpersonal Communication in Virtual Practice

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By: Kaitlyn Lauber

A large part of lawyering involves managing client expectations – under-promising and overdelivering as often as possible. As 2019 drew to a close, many folks spent time setting a number of expectations for the upcoming year. Much to our chagrin, everyone on earth turned out to be wrong for perhaps the first time ever. For most, 2020 oversold itself and has been grossly underdelivering. Societal and personal distress levels are at an all-time high. Our legal system is overwhelmed by a surge of emerging and preexisting needs, many of which disproportionately affect our poor and marginalized communities. The hat a lawyer wears is not a standard fit – the style, shape, and brim change depending on the needs of the client. As the world shifts around us, we must remain resilient and adaptive, both personally and professionally.

People tend to seek lawyerly advice in critical moments when they need leadership and dependability. Many of our clients have been struggling in previously unforeseeable ways. As such, the heightened degree of stress results in unreturned emails and phone calls, or tense and anxious conversations. Sometimes our clients simply want someone to listen to them. Many personal issues may seem facially irrelevant or fruitless, but the lens through which you determine relevance must be kept wide, allowing a larger picture to emerge. Active listening and emotional intelligence are invaluable tools, requiring intention and practice to remain sharp. Taking an extra moment to listen to and understand our clients can be the difference between adequate service and compassionate lawyering.

Photo-6This summer, I had the honor of working with the Erie County Bar Association (ECBA) Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) in the Legal Services for Positive Families and Individuals Unit, a program that provides free legal services to people living with HIV/AIDS and their families. A large portion of my time was spent researching pandemic-applicable caselaw, while the rest was spent consulting with clients on a number of family, estate, housing, and administrative matters. I am grateful to the Buffalo Public Interest Law Program at the University at Buffalo School of Law for providing me with a summer fellowship, thus enabling me to assist with the meaningful work of VLP and its staff attorneys. I also look forward to continuing working with VLP as part of the University of Buffalo School of Law Civil Access to Justice Hybrid Clinic this fall.

As a summer associate, I learned how to practice professionally while sitting in my living room. Often referred to as the DOH Unit because of financial support from the Department of Health, this area of VLP provides free legal services to individuals who are HIV/AIDS positive, or folks who live with someone affected by HIV/AIDS. The DOH Unit acts as general practice, fielding legal issues in as many areas as practicably possible. Thus, this was a great opportunity to learn about multiple areas of law at once.

I cultivated relationships with clients and colleagues whom I have never met. At first, the thought of managing a caseload was admittedly a little nerve wracking. The nervousness quickly dissipated, however, when I realized I came to the table equipped with problem-solving skills and a solid support network. I clicked and tabbed through my list of assignments, prioritizing client work and supervisor requests. I helped my clients solve all kinds of issues, each as important as the last. Many emails were sent, questions were asked, and I learned a great deal about what kind of lawyer I would like to become.

The transition from a standard in-person world towards a (conceptually limitless) technological existence has been made sudden and necessary by COVID-19. As the nature of interpersonal communication evolves, however, it is important that we strive to be as effective as possible. Practicing effective interpersonal communication is something that can be done both in-person, virtually, and at any time. It is important we remain cognizant of the power of the personal relationships we cultivate, especially those which are formed in the absence of physical proximity. Be mindful, take care.

Picture1Name: Kaitlyn J. Lauber

Name of Fellowship: Buffalo Public Interest Law Program (BPILP) Fellowship Award

Placement: ECBA Volunteer Lawyers Project, HIV/AIDS Positive Families and Individuals Unit

Location: Buffalo, NY

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “Trust and dependability are key to building fruitful lawyer-client relationships.”