One of the tasks that we undertook in our foundational work for the clinic was creating a survey that will be handed out to patients of Aunt Martha’s before we begin seeing clients. It is meant to provide us with a sense of which legal issues might be common or most urgent among the patients, so that we can determine which legal matters will likely require our attention. Given our resources, we will not be able to address every legal issue facing prospective clients and we will have to pick our battles. This is difficult because as clinic students we want to take on every challenge and represent every client. This survey will help us focus our skills in the areas that are affecting the most people.
Having completed nearly three years of law school, I have almost lost my ability to communicate with people in easily understandable language. When such communication involves connecting with persons who may have little formal education and who face language barriers, health concerns, financial crises and legal difficulties — private worries that they are being asked to expose to an unknown third party — every word in that communication becomes loaded. Even though the survey is anonymous, I can imagine how the person filling it out might feel. I feel the same way when I am filling out an intake form each time I see a new doctor or have to update my medical history. Every personal question seems like an intrusion into my privacy and I feel defensive at the very idea of anyone having this information. Why does the doctor need to know if I’ve ever done drugs, or tested positive for HIV, or got beaten up by a partner? Even though I laugh at my absurdity in my head, my heart resists. And I certainly have the education, the experience, and the social knowledge to understand why my doctor needs to know everything about me, and to also know that anything I tell him or her is protected by doctor-patient confidentiality. But what about the patient at Aunt Martha’s who comes in with a chronic breathing condition and is handed out a survey that does not appear to have anything to do with his medical situation? He is asked about his living conditions, his financial resources, his immigration status. Even though the survey says in bold letters across the top that it is confidential, he must circle his responses and return it to the medical practitioner who is treating him. That practitioner may glance down at his answers and inevitably, some may catch her eye. Will that make the patient feel a little more exposed, a little less worthy? Will that make the practitioner treat the patient differently, even if just by a little bit?
As law students, we train to be neutral and non-judgmental. We are taught to focus on the legal matter and to find the legal solution, to concentrate on the “facts” of the case. We are taught to be a zealous advocate, to be client-centered. But how can one separate the facts of the case from the reality of the client’s life? Especially when one’s client population is particularly vulnerable? For every word that I wrote for the survey, I had to put myself in the shoes of my prospective client. What would I think if I came to Aunt Martha’s and was handed this survey? How would these questions make me feel? Not only did I have to think of the language in a way that would be least shaming for the person filling it out, I also had to make it as comprehensible and non-technical as possible.
Creating this survey became a life lesson for me in how I could gain the most knowledge about the problems deeply affecting someone without undercutting her dignity. It was a humbling experience, and an invaluable learning experience in effective and respectful communication. At the same time, the exercise made me self-aware and mindful of the ever-present dangers of arrogance and patronizing superiority that seem to characterize our profession to the outside world.
Sarmistha (Buri) Banerjee