Student Perspective: Teaching the Importance and Skill of Client Counseling

Allison Small is a third year law student at Hofstra Law who took Family Law with Skills as a second year law student. She is now a teaching assistant for the course. Her professional field of interest is child and family studies.

One of the most fundamental skills an attorney can learn (and learn as early as possible) is how to properly counsel a client. Client counseling begins from the first meeting and flows through every step of the case. Sometimes it even continues after the case is over.

In the field of family law, clients are emotionally invested. Professors DiFonzo and Schepard always tell their students that family law cases are when people are at their worst, as in the case of the client who was just served with divorce papers and doesn't want to be divorced.

In order to effectively counsel your client when emotion is involved, a lawyer has to be able to let her client express emotion but still gather facts and present the client with legal options to guide the case.

To show our students the experience of client counseling and to teach them how to counsel effectively, the professors of the class conduct a mock counseling exercise. Students have been presented with a ten-page “case file” for David and Lynne Allen. This case file includes background facts known to both sides and facts confidential to each party. Students are divided into skills groups of roughly five students. Each group has been assigned to represent either David or Lynne Allen and has been given the confidential facts corresponding to that party.

Each group has a “senior partner,” a local attorney to help guide the students in the non-textbook reality of how client counseling is conducted. These local attorneys are colleagues of the professors or Hofstra Law alumni who are practicing in the field of matrimonial law. They are essential to our skills exercises because they bring real life experience to the skills we teach our students.

At this point, I think it is important to give you a bit of information about our “clients.” David and Lynne Allen are a married couple about to be divorced. David wants a divorce because he feels his marriage is reaching its end. David has a girlfriend, Norma, and wants to end his marriage and live with her. The fact pattern presents information relating to the issues of maintenance, child support, child custody, and equitable distribution. Students are also encouraged to discuss with clients the various ADR remedies that might be a better option than litigation.

This year, we are trying something new—first year law students will play the role of the client. The students volunteer to be the clients and are given the “case file” that we give our family law students. The first years will provide our students with the experience of counseling a person the attorney knows little about, and our students will provide the first years with a brief glimpse into the world of family law.

Hopefully, at the end of this skills session, our students will have a better understanding of the importance of client counseling in the family law setting.