The Psychology of Legal Advice

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The Psychology of Legal Advice

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When it comes down to it, a lawyer provides legal advice and representation or prepares legal documents. Legal representation involves representing the client before a court or tribunal. Preparing legal documentation involves contract drafting. Legal advice involves advising someone about the law and its processes. We are agents of law, not magicians, miracle workers or shamans.

There are generally two kinds of people who seek legal advice. Those who understand its value consult a lawyer directly. Those seeking legal advice after exhausting their abilities to resolve their issues or problems with as little financial investment, which usually worsens their situation. My sense is that because they can read, write, speak and think ‘as lawyers do’, they think they can advise and represent themselves legally. These sorts tend not to realise the trusty legal adage that a lawyer representing himself has a fool for a client. Or that mimicry does not lead to mastery.

Whatever the case, both types of clients look for the same thing when they see a lawyer: solutions or options. A solution is a complete and permanent resolution to an issue. These are not always possible. I agree with American economist Thomas Sowell when he says, There are no solutions, only trade-offs. If your solution has no trade-off or downside, you haven’t thought through it enough, so it’s best to revisit it.

Since solutions are rare, if not illusory, we are left with options. I often tell my interns, pupils, and lawyers that we must give clients options to deal with their situations. Lateral think-generate as many options as possible. Find those that make the best of poor situations. Discover those that are more favourable than not to the client. Never mind if the options are not great. The very nature of options is that they have their upsides and downsides. Options exist when there are no perfect or absolute solutions.

However, we must be careful not to give the client too many choices, which may result in decision paralysis. Too many choices tend to overwhelm us and make us unable to decide. We either refrain from deciding or make one we are left unsatisfied with. So, consider giving a client what you think are the best three to five choices when dealing with their situation. Sometimes, even those may be too many. Sometimes, the situation does not afford many choices. Whatever the case, more choices do not necessarily mean better choices.

The point is to discover and present options to the client to progress from their situation. Providing options to clients is incredibly important. Options give clients autonomy and a sense of some control over their situation. When clients are presented with options about what they can do about their situation, it brings them mental and psychological relief.

This is the mental and psychological dimension of legal advice: it provides palpable relief from psychological and emotional anguish, anxiety, and stress about their situation. This mental relief is no different from the relief we get after seeing a therapist or a doctor. This is also why I believe there is an inherently therapeutic dimension to law. We reduce our clients’ existential anxiety and stress by using our knowledge to reframe or recalibrate their legal situation or their thinking about it.

The other psychological dimension of legal advice is that we lawyers often have to hear the whole story instead of just the legal issue. Whenever clients tell us about their problems, they often narrate the entire story, including their psychological, emotional, and mental states, reactions, and other side stories, which are often irrelevant to our legal analysis. Sometimes, the legal content of their story comprises only twenty to thirty per cent of the whole story, with the rest comprising the emotional and psychological. But we have to listen.

It would be rude to stop the client midway and say, I have extracted the legal issues from your narrative. I do not need to hear anymore. Please stop. There is no need to speculate why Uncle Mat said this or did that. There is no need to resolve the tension between Kak Jah and Mak Yah. The legal and factual issue is whether there was undue influence when they signed the agreement. I will send you an opinion on this. Thank you.

If we did that, we would come off as unsympathetic, rude, and unempathetic. The client would not feel confident that we were on their side, and they would not feel we were doing our best for them. They are likely to ditch us when they encounter a lawyer who gives them sympathy, empathy, and confidence.

This is why I feel I practice psychology and therapy as much as I do law in my legal practice; they work very closely together. If there’s one thing I can confidently say about the practice of law, it is that it is not all about the practice of law. Instead, the more we get into the practice of law, the less it becomes about the practice of law.

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