Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) Series: Special Considerations When Representing Child Clients

Megan Reilly-Dreas

Niya Fonville

By Megan Reilly-Dreas and Niya Fonville

It’s no secret that the ability to form a trusting relationship with clients is one of the most important skills a lawyer can have. As a rule, “when a client’s capacity to make adequately considered decisions in connection with a representation is diminished because of minority . . . the lawyer shall as far as reasonably possible, maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship with the client.”[1] However, additional considerations should be made when the client is a minor child.

As with any attorney-client relationship, building a foundation of trust is key for a successful working relationship. Because the child is a minor, it is also incredibly important to reinforce the idea that they have agency and decision-making power. As their attorney, you want to be more than just another adult in their lives making decisions for them. You are in a position to empower them by helping them understand what’s going on and how you can help. As Seth Houk, the District Administrator for Guilford County’s Guardian ad Litem [2] program puts it, “you want to be the child’s megaphone.” To that end, here are a few tips for how to effectively work with minor clients:

1. Figure out the best way to communicate.

Attorney Harris of the Law Office of Neubia L. Harris, PLLC suggests lawyers learn to “speak the language” of their minor clients.  Instead of using legal and formal language, use words and phrases that are familiar to the child. In one instance, Attorney Harris, at the suggestion of the parent, followed a largely non-verbal student with autism’s TikTok page in order to better understand his perspective, goals and talents. Additionally, maintaining flexibility with communication is key. Let the minor child determine how and when the communication happens. Leaving the door open for them to come to you when it feels right increases the likelihood of having a productive conversation.

2. Remember that children, regardless of their circumstances, observe and intuit everything going on around them.

It can be tempting to think that children don’t possess the ability to understand what’s going on around them, especially when it comes to legal issues. However, Harris cautions against this, stating “children are tiny humans and you have to treat them as such.” She adds “when you respect children, they respect you.” That being said, be aware of how you are engaging with the child. They will be more willing to open up to you if you seem like a trustworthy adult. Harris suggests not coming to the first meeting in a suit. Furthermore, she suggests that when it is medically safe, and a student is comfortable, that adults sit next to the child during conversations as opposed to across a desk or table. Houk recommends explaining to the child who you are, why you are there, and what you can do to help them out. He states, “it’s often very useful to explain what court is, what a judge does, and what a hearing looks like.” By explaining everything in simple terms, the child will better understand what’s happening and be able to more effectively communicate their needs.

3. Repetition is key.

As we know, the legal process can be confusing, especially to adult clients who have never had to navigate it before. The confusion is only increased when working with a child who, in addition to not understanding the process or procedures, likely doesn’t know the law or what a lawyer does. For that reason, making sure to repeat yourself at each meeting, or even multiple times during the meeting, can be very helpful for a child to retain information about how everything works.

In sum, the most important thing to remember is that serving a child client is a lot like serving an adult client in that, if you take the time to build trust and rapport, the working relationship will be much easier.

For more information on this topic, you can refer to the ABA’s Advocacy Resources. For more information on becoming a Guardian ad Litem, visit the North Carolina Guardian ad Litem website.

[1] ABA Rule 1.14(a).

[2] Become a Guardian ad Litem.