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Photo: Coding Justice panelists

DC Pro Bono Week 2020: Coding Justice Examines Engaging Clients Remotely

By Shea Hazel

Meeting clients where they are is one of the most essential lawyering skills, made only more crucial in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis.

On Monday, October 26, 2020, as part of DC Pro Bono Week 2020, Washington Council of Lawyers hosted Coding Justice, a panel discussion on how to best serve clients remotely and keep them engaged.

Moderated by Michael Lukens, Associate Director, CAIR Coalition, and Aoife Delargy Lowe, Vice President of Law School Engagement and Advocacy, Equal Justice Works, the expert panel engaged in a robust discussion on how service providers interact with clients and others in a more engaging and inclusive manner during COVID-19.

Moderators and panelists shared insights into how their organizations rapidly adjusted to the health crisis, how they supported clients with varying needs, what they think worked, and what they might proactively consider going forward. Panelists shared advice for attorneys and things to keep in mind when working with mental health patients and clients in varying circumstances.  No one solution fits all, and in this ever-changing ‘new norm’ in which we live, discussions like this may offer new perspectives for your approach to client engagement and potential solutions you may want to incorporate into the services you provide.

Insights from Other Industries

  • Laura Meyers, Ph.D., President and CEO, Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC, was surprised by how quickly they were able to move to remote support. They already had a Planned Parenthood app, and within two weeks, they were able to migrate onto TeleHealth. She shared that patients adapted very quickly, and some were even treated in their cars. She highlighted the importance of taking a holistic approach, centered on the needs of patients.
  • Yavar Moghimi, M.D., Medical Director, Behavioral Health, AmeriHealth Caritas Family of Companies, noted the benefit of regulatory changes, especially to TeleHealth, which allowed the ‘home’ to be an approved location of service. He acknowledged the digital divide and reflected on the benefit of being able to deliver service through solely audio-means. “Virtual care is going to be a part of medicine, telehealth, moving forward,” he noted, and there will always be a subset of those interested in receiving their health care this way.
  • Lucy Sgroi, LICSW, School-Based Mental Health Therapist, Mary’s Center, offered insight into the differences between serving adults, who may adapt quickly, to children who aren’t used to being on zoom all day. She highlighted Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the importance of engaging with families in ways that are culturally sensitive and considerate.
  • Caitlin F. McCarthy, Director of Education, Associations and Corporate Partnership Environmental Law Institute, highlighted the importance of remaining open to innovation. She reflected that she was completely blown away by how much colleagues and outside partners and vendors switched quite rapidly, in response to COVID-19, and noted increased accessibility. Caitlin shared the importance of baseline consistency in technological platforms used to provide services. She spoke also about the importance of compassion, a spectrum of soft skills adapting to working with others who may want a more professional and formalized engagement, and those who may be more relaxed.

Tips for Engaging Clients During COVID-19

  • Clients and Patients First
    • Whoever you are serving, consider their comfort level with technology and the situation and put them first.
    • Engage children as children.
    • Take a holistic approach to engagement and service.
    • Offer consistency and compassion.
    • Remain culturally sensitive and considerate.
  • Flexibility is Key
    • Acknowledge reality.
    • Those you serve may miss a meeting or a session and it’s important to consider what is going on in their world.
  • Meet People Where They Are
    • Whether it is zoom with or without a backdrop, in person in the home, or even in the car in the parking lot – understand that everyone is affected and reacting in their own way.
    • Use different platforms to meet with colleagues, patients, vendors.
    • Understand your clients’ preferences.
    • Remember privacy considerations may differ across the various populations you serve.
  • Icebreakers
    • Ask clients to share their preferred pronouns.
    • If your client is a child, possibly ask them to name their three favorite things.
    • Allow everyone to share something they are grateful for.
    • Use gestures such as thumbs up or down to indicate how they are showing up to the meeting.
    • Allow check-ins such as “Red” (my hair is on fire and here is why) / “Yellow” (I don’t know, I am a little bit tense, and here is why) /”Green” (smooth sailing; good emotional space).
  • Technology Considerations
    • Social technologies may include Instagram, Zoom, Slack and others.
    • Technologies such as text to chat providers, TeleHealth, Microsoft Teams, and others may empower the service you are providing
    • Consider using breakout rooms, where 6-8 people can engage in something of a water-cooler social that might be missing due to new working conditions.
    • Low-tech solutions are just as important as high-tech solutions.

Clients, colleagues, families, and friends may all be at different places during this time. We hope the suggestions provided during Coding Justice help you provide services, collaborate, and continue to thrive as you work to maintain your own mental, spiritual, and physical balance.

As a reminder, if there is a particular legal service you are interested in or enjoy working with, you are encouraged to reach out to them to see if they are offering pro bono opportunities. The DC Virtual Pro Bono Fair provides a list of legal service providers who generally have pro bono projects. For an extensive list of in-house pro bono opportunities, including programs and resources, and ways to get involved in person and remotely, please see In-House Pro Bono In The Time of Covid-19 Recap and Volunteer Opportunities.

Thank you for adapting to serving clients remotely. We’re posting ideas, tips, and strategies for client engagement and more on social media using #DCProBono20 to further the discussion.

Shea Hazel is a law student at UMass Law and Legal Intern for the Washington Council of Lawyers.

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