Compassion in the Legal Profession: A Tale of Hope at Christmas

By Alicia Mitchell-Mercer

Few of us work in an area of law where calls to our offices are initiated by clients because something wonderful happened. For most legal professionals, that initial phone call from a potential client is literally an act of desperation. Their lives are currently in a state of chaos and they need someone to fix it. They need someone to understand why they are so angry or depressed. They need to feel heard and validated. Most legal clients are going through one of the most devastating and difficult periods of their lives. Perhaps there has been a failed marriage, they’ve been charged with a crime, a loved one has died, they have been injured, they are in the middle of litigation that could ruin them financially, they have been assaulted, or any number of other traumatic life events.

Have you ever felt like your firm seems to attract the most unhinged people that humanity has to offer? I know I have felt that way at times. As a legal professional it’s very easy to become jaded or desensitized to a client’s needs and concerns after years of dealing with their adversities. Sometimes they are unreasonable regarding their expectations. Sometimes they are just emotionally fragile. This does not mean that there is anything innately wrong with our clients – at least no more than the next human being. It just means that when we go through extremely stressful events, like a failed marriage, it can be difficult to process all of those emotions and make logical well-thought-out decisions.

Under these circumstances it is easy for a legal professional to fall into a pattern of complaining when a client calls or emails too frequently. It’s easy to become frustrated with a client who can’t seem to follow instructions or turn things in on time. It’s easy to become desensitized to the point where you do your job, but you have removed all compassion from the professional relationship.

While we cannot become so emotionally involved that we take our client’s problems home and lose sleep at night or spend all day on the phone with them to the detriment of other clients, we always need to look at our clients’ cases from their perspective and make sure we are taking their emotional or physical circumstances into consideration. And, occasionally, it’s important to go above and beyond for a client who has lost everything and needs their faith restored in humanity.

That happened to one of my clients on December 12, 2018. I’m sharing this story with her permission, although I never did this in anticipation of posting it on a blog. I just thought the outcome was too amazing not to share!

My firm has a client who is a divorced parent. She has just come out of a domestic violence relationship. Money is tight. Times are difficult. Nerves are frayed. She’s been working two jobs for a number of years and does not receive consistent child support. The father is largely absent. She moved to North Carolina for a fresh start and has no blood relatives here other than her children. If you work in family law, you may know this client. You have seen him or her walk into your office many times with different names and different faces, but very similar struggles.

She has hoped to work one job in her dream field so she can be at home in the evening with her young children. But, until this November that dream had eluded her. Thankfully, through some networking, I made a contact that resulted in an interview for her. She didn’t need my help in selling her skill set. She just needed an introduction. You know how it can be when you are job seeking. Sometimes it’s just who you know. She breezed through the lengthy interview process and was offered the position. Finally –  a break – a job that paid more than she has ever made.

You’d think that would be her happily ever after. But, she called me frantic on December 11, 2018 at the end of the business day and was asking about the legal implications of the I-9 requirements. I passed along the information that she was seeking. She wanted to know how long, legally, she has to turn in documents to human resources. In all of the chaos and turmoil, she had misplaced two very important documents – her birth certificate and her social security card. She needed at least one of them to meet the I-9 requirements for this new job. The last day she could possibly turn them in without losing her new job was December 12, 2018, and she still couldn’t find them after tearing her house a part.

Unfortunately, I told her, because she was born out of state, it would be impossible to use a service like to obtain her birth certificate and meet this deadline because of processing times. Additionally, there is no “same day” service for obtaining a social security card. The temporary paper they give you states that it’s not to be used to prove eligibility to work. She was in a very desperate situation. She was 24 hours away from losing her dream job because of a piece of paper.

I didn’t readily have a solution to this problem and told her to keep looking. But, after I got off the phone with her, I had an idea. I contacted an attorney at my office and told him the situation and my suggestion for helping her. I wanted to take the first available flight to Ohio the following morning to get a copy of her birth certificate and return it to Human Resources at her new job before the end of the day. I called the Ohio department that is responsible for birth certificates on December 11, 2018 about 10 minutes before their office closed and they told me that anyone can obtain a birth certificate in Ohio. All I had to do was bring the fee and fill out the form.

That evening I called her and told her what I was going to do. She said no, I can’t ask you to do that and she protested vehemently out of shame and embarrassment. But, what I wanted her to see was compassion. I wanted to her to see that there are people who do care about her future.

So, on December 12, 2018, I flew into Dayton International Airport and took a taxi to the place where I would pick up her birth certificate. I then had the taxi take me back to the airport and board the very next plane. I was back by 2 p.m. and turned her documents into Human Resources at 4:15 p.m. with very little time to spare.

I was exhausted at the end of the day.  But, I’m prouder of this particular accomplishment than almost any case we have ever “won” for a client. And, this particular course of action took no substantive legal skills at all. All it took was the compassion of a law firm and the willingness of one person to do for someone what they could not do for themselves. There is no better feeling than that.

I know many of our members are civic minded and involved with volunteering in organizations already, and I’m always so amazed at the amount that paralegals do for our communities on their personal time. I didn’t have to take time off of work because I had permission from my firm to go. This Christmas, I wanted to share this story and encourage anyone, who may be feeling a little disgruntled with their current client list, to truly see your clients. They are not a problem. They simply have problems that we need to help them solve.

Alicia Mitchell-Mercer is a senior litigation paralegal and legal project manager at Brown & Associates, PLLC and a consultant for LexPM Consulting in Charlotte, NC.

Ms. Mitchell-Mercer has a BS in Paralegal Studies and a MS in Project Management. She speaks at conferences regarding legal project management and best practices for improving inefficiencies, maximizing profit, and providing a better client experience.

Ms. Mitchell-Mercer is certified by the NC State Bar, SC Bar, National Association of Legal Assistants, and National Federation of Paralegal Associations. Ms. Mitchell-Mercer holds advanced paralegal certifications in Contracts Administration, Trial Practice, Business Organizations: Incorporated Entities, and E-Discovery.