How the Egan model can help legal aid lawyers.
Successful legal aid practice relies on an effective relationship with your client. Getting paid for the work by the Legal Aid Agency means that while the client provides the content, you need to be in control of the format of interviews and manage client expectations. Gerard Egan created a model for working with counselling clients that can usefully be adapted in legal practice.1Gerard Egan, The skilled helper: a problem-management approach to helping, 6th edition, Brooks Cole, 1998.
The model can help clients manage their legal problems more effectively, leading to their desired outcomes. It also provides some tools that lawyers can use to manage the lawyer/client relationship.
The model aims to help the client address three main questions: ‘What is going on?’; ‘What do I want instead?’; and ‘How might I get to what I want?’ Lawyers can use these stages to establish an understanding with the client as to who is doing what and how each can contribute to resolving a client’s problem, or at least moving them along in a positive way.
If you explain the legal process at the first meeting, and how long it will last, the client is more likely to understand that they have a certain amount of time to talk, but you will also need some time for your part. For example: ‘Today we have a 45-minute meeting, if you could start by explaining your situation and what you want to happen, then I can explain the possible legal options that might be available and we can agree what the next steps may be.’
Stage 1 – what’s going on?
The first stage allows the client to tell their story and reflect. The lawyer can help this by using good active listening skills: open questions, paraphrasing, checking understanding and summarising, as well as perhaps offering some gentle challenges where needed.
The client may have bottled up a lot of issues and grouped them together, some of which you can help with and others that you can’t. You may need prompts such as ‘What, in all of this, is the most important?’ or ‘What would make the most difference?’
Stage 2 – what do they want instead?
It is important to allow the client to explore the options and find what would make most sense to them. If you try to push the client into a solution because you know it is legally possible, but it isn’t what they want, they probably won’t cooperate and you will both have wasted your time. Useful questions might be: ‘What exactly is your goal?’; ‘What could you manage/are you likely to achieve?’; and ‘When do you want to achieve that by?’ Once the client has had a chance to think through the advantages and disadvantages of any options, and decide what they want, they should be ready for the next stage.
Stage 3 – how will they get there?
This will help the client move towards the goals they have identified in stage 2. It is about agreeing strategies and specific actions. You can help the client by explaining what the legal issues are and what can be done, what has worked in other similar cases, where there are problems and whether some objectives may not be achievable through the legal process.
You would work through the next steps with the client, breaking down the case strategy into bite-size chunks, and setting out clearly what you and they need to do, with timescales. One practitioner I know used to dictate her client care letter during the first meeting with the client, so that the client could stop her if they didn’t agree with something or didn’t understand. It was a great way to manage time and avoid any misunderstandings.
As with any theory or model, the key to making it practical is to keep the client in the foreground and theory in the background, rather than the other way round. Approaching a client interview as a three-stage event, the lawyer in control of format and the client in control of content, can be a useful way to ensure both you and the client get what you need to support a good working relationship.