In law school, we were taught different strategies in communicating effectively with clients. Often, however, there isn’t a discussion on how best to interact with indigent clients. Here are a few tips that anyone can use when connecting with clients who do not always have reliable means of communication.
Tip #1: If the client’s number is out of service, try again later.
Indigent clients do not always have money to consistently keep their cellphone on and in service. Therefore, when receiving an out of service message, do not give up. Rather, try, try, and try again. Sometimes the client is late or unable to pay their bill for the month – as opposed to them getting a new number – and so trying to call them later is often your best bet.
Trick: Waiting to call one to two weeks after getting the out of service message works best. An indigent client may add minutes to their phone on a weekly basis, or it may take time for them to make a payment. By continuing to call them, you are being consistent in your efforts to communicate with your client but not overbearing. Further, by calling them consistently, the reason why you are calling stays fresh in your mind. If you still receive an out of service message, try calling again in one to two weeks intervals at least two more times, before moving onto Tip #2.
Tip #2: Gather as many numbers from the client as possible.
When you are unable to reach the client at their primary number, try calling them on secondary numbers, such as the numbers of friends or family members. During the initial client interview, I always make to ask for at least two numbers that I can call if I am unable to reach the client.
For example, I will ask “Besides your number, are there any other good numbers I can call if I need to reach you?” From there, I usually follow up with a specific question, such asking them for numbers for their spouse/partner, parents, grandparents, siblings, children (if 18 years or older), etc. I always make sure to ask my clients if it is OK to call those numbers to reach them and if I can leave a message with those numbers.
If calling does not work, then writing a letter to the client’s primary address or a secondary address, such as their friends or family, is also a good way to reconnect with the client.
Trick: Ensure you have the client’s permission, then call each number and introduce yourself. It is good to develop a rapport with the client’s family and friends before making any requests of them. This way, when you need to follow up about the client’s whereabouts or new primary number, they won’t treat you with suspicion or be reluctant to share information.
Tip #3: Consider scheduling client meetings in public places such as libraries, churches, community centers, or the client’s home.
Clients who are indigent do not always have a car or reliable transportation. Generally, when trying to get around, many will either walk, bike, take the bus, or get rides. That is why is it important to be flexible about locations when meeting with a client who is indigent. Usually, it is not that the client does not want to meet you, rather it can be as simple as they are unable to get a ride to your office. It is also good to note if your office is along any major bus stops – this makes it easier for the client to plan their route to your office.
Trick: Flexibility can also mean being open to meeting at times outside normal business hours. For example, a client who works first shift (typically 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), might only be able to see you after 5 p.m. or before 7 a.m. to discuss their case. Therefore, getting an understanding of the client’s work schedule (and schedule in general) is a great way to plan for future communication them.
Tip #4: Recognize and understand that the client may be suffering from trauma, and therefore, may not be completely open or honest with you during the initial client meeting – or ever.
Often, clients who are indigent have dealt with, or are continuing to deal with, significant psychological and physical trauma. And as a result, some clients can be in a state of extreme stress, helplessness, or suffer from various mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When communicating with a client who has experienced a traumatic event, it is important to speak with consideration and compassion. Do not try to be the client’s therapist or be their best friend. Instead, it is OK to acknowledge to the client that you are not an expert on their trauma, but that you are willing to learn what events have shaped them into the person they are today.
Here, I find that a good way to build a rapport with clients is by praising them on completing everyday tasks (like ones you or I would otherwise take for granted). For example, “It is wonderful to hear that you continue to work. This makes what? Two months at that job? Way to go!” Or “That’s great you have been attending your daughter’s soccer games. I know the crowd and the noise can be overwhelming at times, but good job for pushing on.” I always like to say, “positivity over pessimism, let’s look for the good in today, instead of the bad of the past.”
Of course, this is not to say ignore past traumatic events! For a list on mental health treatment centers that may be beneficial to your client throughout the United States please see:
Trick: This can also mean ensuring communication with the client is done in a safe space, such as consistently calling or meeting on certain times/days, allowing the client to choose how to sit (e.g., facing the door, facing the window, etc.), or simply giving the client time to vent about stressors or their traumatic event before “getting to business.” Bottom line, do not rush the client and remember to always leave time for the client to vent or simply process the information you give them – and make sure you do not fall victim to vicarious traumatization.
For additional information about how to recognize, prepare, and react to a client experiencing trauma, see:
Tip #5: Don't give up, get creative
Sometimes, when Tips #1 and #2 no longer work, you have to get creative. For example, reaching out to local community centers, the client’s case worker(s) (if applicable and with permission), and homeless shelters are other ways of reconnecting with the client, should their primary or secondary numbers stop working.
For example, if the client is homeless or a victim of domestic violence, then developing a rapport with the local homeless, womens’, and mens’ shelters is a good way to stay in touch with your client should they suddenly no longer have access to their phone.
Here, I would try to figure out the last place or city the client called me from and go from there. For example, if I am calling around local homeless shelters or community outreach centers in Sheboygan, then I would look up the names and numbers of the directors for these shelters and centers. Often, these places cannot confirm or deny whether the client is there, and so I will usually just leave my name and number with the staff, along with a message that the client can contact me when they are safe and settled and able to do so.
Also check CCAP, Offender Locator, and local jail inmate searches to ensure your client is not in custody. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that many people who are arrested and locked up are indigent.
Trick: Do not limit yourself to only contacting the client via phone. You could try emailing them (if applicable, not all clients have an email address or access to a reliable internet source) or texting them (I would recommend texting from professional number, because while we want our client to have access to us, we also want to create a healthy boundary to that access).
Conclusion: It’s Not Personal
A final thought to remember: do not take it personally if a client becomes frustrated or flustered and suddenly shuts down and stops talking to you. It is possible the client is suffering from a traumatic event and needs space and time to cope.
Or it could be the client is simply unable to communicate with you right now (i.e., in custody, phone is cut off, etc.). The important thing is to recognize that indigent clients can face additional hurdles to communicating with us and to keep trying!
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.