Client-Centered Practice

A few years back, when I started to co-counsel with the University of Denver Civil Rights Clinic, I started hearing about “client-centered lawyering.”  “Yeah yeah yeah” I thought, “I listen to my clients, too.”  But as I worked more closely with the professors and students at the clinic, I came to appreciate the extra layer of thought and respect that this brought to the representation.  Often I would find myself proposing a perfectly rational, highly effective, kick-ass course of action, only to hear a student or professor say, “I wonder how our client would feel about that.”  Or I would prepare to tell the client why our proposed course of action was right, just, logical, and effective, and a student or professor would suggest that perhaps we first talk with the client about his goals.

It has been a good learning process for an experienced lawyer, especially one who cut her teeth as the nth chair associate in a giant firm — representing large corporate clients, where the client’s moral, ethical, and personal goals for the litigation were as distant as the moon — and then moved into a plaintiffs’ class action practice, where the “client” is simultaneously the individual and the class.

Client-centered lawyering has been at the top of my head for a variety of reasons, and so it was this morning as I read this account of parents — a blind mother and sighted father — meeting with the education bureaucrats who were making decisions for their blind daughter.*  The question was, what sort of cane should the daughter be provided and taught to use?  First, for me, a lesson in the fact that there are multiple types of white canes:

The discussion surrounds the selection of which cane Marley is to use, we want the longer, lighter white cane, while she feels that a much shorter, 3x heavier with a que ball end cane is the “best choice”.

The writer/dad discusses the practical pros and cons of the two types of cane, along with this essential history:

Most importantly, the difference SYMBOLICALLY from the short, red ended heavy cane vs the long white cane. The standard cane originates in the UK circa 1921, by James Biggs, who found himself newly blind and painted his walking stick to become more visible. (White cane, Wikipedia.org). The long cane was developed in 1958 by the Iowa chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, designed to “enable us to walk faster without diminishing either safety or grace”(The Nature of Independence by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, NFB.org) One was created from a “discomfort from the amount of traffic around his home”, and designed for the purpose of “being more visible”. Of its entire development from England in the 20’s, to France in the 30’s and the lions club in America in the 50’s, the main theme from its inception, to its development and adoption into law, is the concept of “visibility”, alerting others of a blind person. In contrast, the long white cane was created from a dissatisfaction for “the short, heavy… type, and we youngsters associated carrying a cane with begging, shuffling along, and being helpless”, and designed for the purpose of “advancing on the road to freedom and independence”(Jernigan). And THOSE are facts…
~In short, one symbolizes “look out, I am a handicapped person, and I can’t get around that good”, while the other symbolizes “look out, I’m a handicapable person, and I’m coming through!”

And here was the response of the “Orientation and Mobility Professional” in a meeting with the writer, his wife, and the daughter’s educational team:

Every time we speak about what the white cane means, or mention the philosophy of advocacy and higher expectations/ standards we live by and expect for ourselves, including Marley, a look of sheer disgust smears across this teachers face, followed by a heavy roll of the eyes and pulling of her brows as high as she can, finishing off with a sarcastic smile to the others (Marley’s principle, kindergarten teacher, low vision teacher and special services coordinator) CLEARLY saying without using words, “who the fuck do you think you are to make decisions for your daughter, & I can’t believe we’re wasting our time listening to his shit folks”.

The words she IS using is, “what training and credentials do you have in orientation & mobility (O&M)” (to have a say in the course of your daughters independence development). She says, “I have a masters in O&M, and YEARS of experience”, she says, “Marley’s white cane with metal tip is a danger to others”.

The writer sums it up succinctly in what seems to me to be the absolute 180-degree opposite of a client-centered approach:  “I look at these divine and almighty credentials of hers as a hindrance, she has had 6 years of formal training on how a sighted person tells a blind person what’s best for them.”  It made me stop and think:  when is my law degree a hindrance to helping people achieve their real goals.  True, when they have selected law to achieve those goals, I have 30 years (starting from first year law school) of experience in how to use the tools of the legal system to achieve those goals.  But I can’t tell them what their goals are or should be.  And it is incumbent on me to provide [legal, ethical] options, and not only the options that I think achieve the goals I think they ought to have.

But client-centeredness needs to escape legal clinics and law journal articles and inform medical, social service, education, and other practices were the folks with the fancy degrees and certificates think it’s a license to tell their clients what’s best for them.  In addition, while I’m sure it’s a problem everywhere people with training and degrees use those skills to help people who lack same, but are ass-deep in their own lives, I’d venture it’s a larger problem in the world of disability.  People with disabilities know their own bodies, skills, and strategies often far better than the credentialed doctors, teachers, and social workers tasked with evaluating their lives and doling out treatment and resources.  These practices need a giant dose of client-centeredness to avoid the absurd and appalling circumstances of a sighted professional telling a blind father what was best for his blind daughter to navigate the world.

Also this particular “O&M Professional” should please go fuck herself.

**********

* This FB post also appears in the blog Blind Mom in the Burbs.

One thought on “Client-Centered Practice

  1. Kathie Cool

    Can you say “partner”, or “collaboration”? Thank you Amy, for your humility, in being able to recognize that perhaps a client or a person with a disability might have some skin in the game and might have knowledge, first hand no less, about their own very personal condition, strengths and challenges. I believe that other “experts” may have something to offer in the realm of resources or even anecdotal stories, “such and such tried this or that and found if helpful”, but to try to play the “expert” card is arrogant, not helpful, and generally pisses off or turns off the very people they are attempting to “help/serve”. If more “experts” had your insights, Amy, there would be much more help/service for those who need it. Sorry for the sarcasm, yet in the case you described, I see the experts as those who are blind (and they have big, fat egos!).

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