Watch and learn

I’ve already sung the praises of “learning by doing” at BU Law in previous posts about clinics, competitions, and internships. I’d like to add that “learning by watching” isn’t so bad, either. In the past two weeks, I had two great watching experiences, first as coach and director of the BU Client Counseling team, and second as a student in Mediation observing two real-life mediators.

The BU Client Counseling team did very well in the regional competition. As a student director/coach, I fortunately did not have to be an expert as much as a supporter and guide. Fortunately, this year’s theme was family law, and as the only coach (of four) with any family law experience, I was a good resource for basic facts, standards, and guidelines.

The competition works by giving teams just one or two sentences to work from, e.g. “Sam Bennington has called you about his/her adoptive daughter who was recently taken from him/her.” From there, the teams have 45 minutes with an actor playing “Sam Bennington” in which to build rapport, explore potential complications, counsel on moral or ethical dilemmas, offer advice and next steps, and then send the client on their way and perform an exacting self-critique. They’re scored on how well they do on all of these things, and given a ranking as compared to all other teams. The best team in a region goes on to nationals; our best BU team came in as regional runners-up, and are alternates for the nationals. Read more about the results (and other BU student competitions) here.

BU Law sent three great teams of two to the regional at Suffolk University Law School.

So what did I learn, and how? I have counseled  a good number of actual clients in clinic, but watching our teams, first at the BU-wide competition where I played the dual roles of client-actor and judge, and then as observer-coach at regionals, I learned about the importance of starting with small talk to put the client at ease. I learned that taking the ‘temperature’ is the most important thing because it helps you set the tone for the rest of the meeting. Getting client goals out early can shape your meeting, but it can also blind you, keeping you from vital questions that get to the hurdles you’ll face later. I found that you should always ask about the good and bad about all players, and carefully assess whether your client is telling you the truth, and what you’ll do if they’re not.

I learned just as much from our teams’ missteps as I did from their successes, and from judges’ feedback. It was a month-long crash course in client counseling, and I didn’t even have to counsel anyone (except my student teams).

In Mediation, our professor does a great job of bringing in experienced guests. Two weeks ago, we had our first mediator guests, two speakers with fascinatingly different styles. They demonstrated how they prepare clients for mediation and how they deliver opening statements, in the context of a real case where a woman sued her investment advisor and his employer

Steven Manchel talked first about how he works hard to tailor his personal appearance to his audience’s expectations. I liked that he had very specific expectations for his clients and worked to convey his seriousness to them. It served as interesting contrast to Gerry Zipser’s much more relaxed approach, which seemed to put more trust in her client’s ability to conduct herself appropriately, but also took into account that her client had more emotional baggage and less of a professional image to uphold than Manchel’s corporate client. Each then delivered a real opening statement.

It prompted me to assess my own style. I decided that if I were preparing a client to enter a mediation, my approach would be somewhere in the middle. It raised questions for me about understanding my clients’ needs: Do they need to be told exactly what to do, or will that approach intimidate or belittle them? Are they more interested in an attorney who has a commanding or “impressive” appearance, or one who can relate to them on their level? How will coaching your client help or hurt your case? What if you tell them not to move and they wind up looking stiff, or afraid? What if you say too little and your client ends up working against herself? Finally, I wondered about what I presumed was a major part of client prep: the managing of expectations.

It might sound like I had more questions in the end than answers, but I love that. The answers will come eventually, but these folks taught me what I ought to be asking. That’s so important.


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