Many VLN clients are proceeding pro se, and have little or no legal experience. This presents specific challenges to attorneys wishing to provide tangible help in advice only or limited services settings.  Below are some tips—gathered from our experienced attorneys—to maximize your impact:

  • First – set the expectation. Make sure the client knows that you have a finite amount of time for him or her. Setting this from the start makes it easier to enforce.
  • Give the client a chance to tell his or her story.  Even though your time is limited, your empathy and kindness are so important to the client.
  • At some point, you may need to take control of the conversation.  If the client is focusing on irrelevant facts, providing too much detail, or simply off track, interject with pointed questions that elicit the information you need. Ask for any paperwork that the client may have, as that can help focus the issue quickly.
  • Be proactive in providing whatever services time allows. Tasks that are easy for you can be very difficult for a client. Rather than advising the client to draft a letter, for example, provide some recommended language if you have time. Providing a brief service accomplishes much more for the client than telling him or her to take that action.1
  • If possible, provide specific written language for the artful portions of a pleading. If your client is pro se, a persuasive written pleading is critical, as the client has less ability to be orally persuasive. In most pro se cases, the papers are the case.
  • Write explicit instructions regarding next steps for the client to take, both to help him or her remember and convey it accurately later.2
  • VLN provides resource materials regarding the law and referral options. Use resources (including yours, such as knowledgeable colleagues) whenever helpful. If a law student is at the clinic, you may ask him or her to find relevant materials.
  • If you believe the client has no case, tell them so. It serves the client and the courts to provide clients with your frank assessment. Explain the reason behind your assessment—and remember that it is ultimately the client’s decision how to proceed.
  • Some clients do not have an issue that is legal in nature. For any social service issues, refer the client to United Way (phone number – “211”) or call yourself to facilitate correct information.  In some situations, all you can do is empathize with the difficulty of the problem and acknowledge that it is beyond the scope of the clinic.

Thank you so much for your time and help to those in poverty!


1Studies show that more clients have favorable outcomes to their issues if attorneys provide a brief service, not just legal advice. Brief service includes making phone calls, writing letters, helping draft part of a pleading, etc.

2More clients have favorable outcomes with written instructions to follow.