by Hywel Thomas (as appeared in the ACAL Newsletter of November 2002)
I’ve been specialising in individual claims at Abney Garsden McDonald solicitors since December 2001. Now, when I tell people what I do, it can stop conversations. It starts others. The learning curve has been long and steep. I knew from the outset, when I first decided to accept the job at AGM, that my approach to my work would change.
In my previous job, I had handled a broad range of general PI work, covering workplace accidents, RTA’s, slips and trips, ranging from the serious to the fairly minor. The work was rewarding, and I had a high turnover of clients, with a caseload in excess of 220 matters.
When I joined AGM, I took over a caseload that comprised of approximately 50 adult claimants, many of whom have numerous claims. Every single matter relates to injuries sustained as a result of physical or sexual abuse in childhood. All claimants are claiming for psychological injuries as a result of the abuse- some have suffered more severely than others.
I was aware that this was the type of caseload I would be taking over before I started my new job. Naturally, I tried to prepare myself for the change, though on my first day, when I started reading through some files, I started to have misgivings about the decision I’d made. I read my first police statement. I read my first expert’s report. I considered whether to come back again the following day such was the difficult nature of the material. I had a brief chat about the claimant with the previous case handler and immediately the focus of my thinking changed. What I now had on my hands was a series of legal issues. The horror of what I had read was still there, but I quickly realised my role in focusing on the legal issues.
Fortunately, at AGM, most of us in the practice share offices, and others’ doors are always open. Seeing clients for the initial interview is always difficult and emotionally draining. We benefit immensely from sharing an office and having brief informal discussions that focus not on the actual abuse itself, but on a possible series of solutions we can find for the client.
The need to have this chat was never really necessary when dealing with general PI matters. Despite the fact that many claimants were distressed by their injuries, their instructions were never so personal, so a sense of detachment was always easier to achieve.
I’ve learned very quickly how to define the relationship with my clients. I cannot see more than one client a day, but each client is made aware that they have plenty of time to give full and clear instructions. I always ensure that a client feels that they are being listened to – in particular because one of the points they now wish to redress is that they weren’t listened to as children. As I met more clients, I felt I was learning the art of interviewing all over again. I quickly learned that to tell a client at the beginning that they can stop at any time, or they can ask for a break, immediately puts them at ease and more able to discuss the history of the abuse. I also make a point of telling clients that I will need only limited information at the outset, and that the examining psychologist or psychiatrist will be questioning them in more detail. Whilst some are relieved to hear this, others prefer to get everything “off their chest” at the first meeting.
Prior to meeting with the client, we will send out a brief guide to them explaining what we can do for them, and what procedures we are likely to follow. They are also advised, via our website in particular what we can’t do for them- they should not for example consider their solicitor to be a counsellor. We consequently find that we’re rarely the first person with whom the client has had an opportunity to discuss the abuse.
I find that even in the initial meeting it’s important to give the client an overview of how their claim is likely to progress. Whilst the guide we send them outlines the procedure, I always take the difficult step of explaining to them that proving the abuse in itself is not enough, and that we have to prove negligence and causation. I strongly point out to them all the weaknesses in their claim from the outset, to make them aware that the process will not be an easy one, both legally and psychologically. This ensures the client has realistic expectations from the outset.
Also in setting out the legal position in so much detail at such an early stage, it becomes easier to define the relationship with the client. Not only does it become clear to them that the instructions given are used in a particular way to prepare a claim, it also helps to keep a certain emotional distance from the client from the very outset. Clients often discuss matters with us that are reserved for people who have the closest of relationships. Without a focus on the legal issues at hand, and separating what we can do to help the client from what we would like to do, we can lose the emotional detachment that is required to be an effective solicitor to the client.
Issues such as these were not as important when dealing with general PI matters. Whilst we all have support systems, I’ve found that keeping the work within the office is even more important now. Knowing that we have the safety net of access to a counsellor through the firm also assists.
There is one other way I’ve found that stops me from dwelling too much on matters in my own time such as at the weekend. It distinguishes this area of law from any other I’ve practiced. In social situations I tell people what I do. I no longer get the tiresome “Ambulance chaser” jibes. People are interested, though they quickly get off the subject of work.