The title of this column is from lyrics written by the singer & song writer Jimmy Buffett in his song Manana. Why am I quoting it here? Because it captures a great truth plaintiff trial lawyers must learn. That truth is until we fully understand our client’s injuries and their impact we are not prepared to represent them as they deserve. We need to have empathy with our client’s situation.

What’s the best way to do this? Meet with and spend time with your clients. Go to their home or where they are being cared for. Spend the day or longer. Learn about their environment. Find out what is involved with daily activities such as toilet, dressing, feeding and the challenges involved. What about mobility and details you wouldn’t have known about if you hadn’t been there to see and understand. Listen carefully. Talk to not only the client, but everyone else involved in their care as well as their daily life. While watching a video made by a video consultant is helpful, it is not the same as experiencing things personally.

Empathy is understanding other people and their feelings. It can be done by using your imagination. You imagine how the are feeling or their pain, sorrow or other emotions. Empathetic understanding with your client is an essential part of plaintiff representation. The most effective way to do this is by spending quality time with clients. This process is known as the mirroring mode of empathy.

Neural Linguistic programing characterizes several perceptions for the process. The first perceptual position is “Self.”  Looking at the situation through your own eyes and evaluating your reactions. The second perceptual position is “other.” Putting yourself in the other person’s position and looking at the situation through their eyes and awareness. What’s it like for them? The third perceptual position is “observer.” This is a third-party view looking at the situation of yourself and the client to learn from that vantage point. The fourth perceptional position is “group.” Here you view the situation from the point of view your you, the client and others who are affected such as family or friends. The fifth perceptual position is “source.” View the situation from your belief or value system. This is a place of your empathy, compassion and acceptance for another perspective.

Let me illustrate this fact with a personal experience. My wife Lita and I traveled to South Africa in October to Kruger National Park for a photo safari. The airports at Dubai and Johannesburg we go through involve a lot of walking and with knee replacements that can be a challenge for me. We arranged a wheelchair to transport me from arrival to the departure gate both going and returning on the trip. I’ve represented many people who were wheelchair dependent, but here’s what I learned is the reality of just a few aspects of being in a wheelchair for a short time.

There is a loss of control the one thing virtually everyone has in common is the compulsion to be in control. We are more comfortable driving the car then being a passenger. We suffer distress when we lose total control over ourselves and our circumstances. Being pushed by someone else through a crowded airport stimulates that reaction. But, even if you are controlling your wheelchair there is a dependence upon the chair. You can’t get up and walk or run. You are stuck in the chair as the only means of getting around.

It reflects on personal dignity Sitting down when everyone else is standing and traveling with others while sitting in chair while they walk impacts personal dignity. We all have a self-image which is impacted by the fact we are different then everyone else. They are standing or walking while the person in a wheel chairs confined to a sitting position. 

In crowds you are at risk of colliding It never occurred to me before, but in crowd’s people who are walking are not paying attention to someone who is sitting lower in a wheel chair. They are reading signs, talking and otherwise distracted. The result is you are at risk for people inadvertently colliding or tripping over you. You need to stay vigilant and warn people to avoid it happening. 

You look up to see or speak to everyone else It’s a small, but significant point that your viewpoint is always up at people. You are sitting down and they are standing up. You look up to everyone. It’s like a small person in a crowd of professional basketball players. 

You must look for access When you are dependent upon wheels to get around you quickly learn the importance of ramps and sidewalks to accommodate your wheelchair. It means you don’t use stairs or escalators. Instead, you frequently go out of your way to find the elevator and access. That usually means it takes longer to get where you are going than if you were walking. It also creates a problem if you must transfer to a bus or car or use toilet facilities.  If you are going to a hotel or meeting, you also need to find out, in advance, if there is access for your wheelchair.

You have limited capacity to take things with you Wheel chairs are not built for suitcases or other objects you want to have with you. It mans you need to plan for transporting what you can’t take with you.

Imagine if you will, what the full reality is of being wheel chair dependent from these few brief experiences I had. It’s hard to believe that I represented wheel chair dependent people without ever going through this experience personally. Get involved with your clients on a personal level and you will be a better lawyer for them.

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