Five strategies to engage with elderly and vulnerable clients online

In the ever-evolving landscape of legal practice, establishing meaningful connections with clients, particularly elderly ones, is paramount. Online communication with elderly clients demands patience, empathy and active engagement. For good reason, lawyers are often hesitant to obtain instructions from elderly clients online. 1 in 6 elderly Australians are subject to some form of abuse – financial abuse being the most common.

Teams-work makes the dream work: Zoom ahead with these strategies when engaging with vulnerable clients over video conference

Below are five strategies for lawyers to foster strong relationships with elderly and other vulnerable clients in the digital age, whilst effectively managing the inherent risk of taking instructions and signing documents online.

  1. Understand the legal framework: Capacity is a fluid, decision-specific, legal construct that requires a practitioner to broadly assess a client’s ability to: understand information that is being explained to them, retain that information to the extent necessary to make a decision, use or weigh that information as part of making a decision and communicate the decision in some fashion. Be aware that the specific test for capacity is often enshrined in the law that governs either the document that is being signed or decision that is being made. It is also critical to understand whether the document that is being prepared can actually be signed electronically, or whether a wet-ink signature is still required.
  2. Treat any online meeting as if it was in person: We often fall into the trap of treating an online meeting as purely transactional and failing to try and build rapport with the client. Assessing a client’s capacity, or whether they are being subjected to coercion or pressure from another person, is often best done in the ‘small talk’ that surrounds the subject matter of the meeting. During video calls, focus on maintaining eye contact with the client. A key tip is to deactivate the feed that is displayed of yourself in Zoom or Teams which will force you to look directly at the client and therefore better assess them and their environment.
  3. Take your time: When communicating with elderly or vulnerable clients online, it’s vital to acknowledge the significance of time. Allow clients the space they need to express themselves fully. Be patient and avoid rushing through conversations. Give your undivided attention to the client, demonstrating your genuine interest in their concerns. Ask open-ended questions, avoid interrupting and instead, allow them to finish their thoughts. Acknowledge their emotions and concerns, validating their experiences. Avoid distractions by turning off email notifications and turning over your phone, and concentrate on their words, ensuring they know you are fully present.
  4. Always be on your ‘A-game’: It can be tempting to act more casually when engaging with clients in an online environment, particularly if you yourself are also working out of the office. Given you are not in the room with the client, you are at a higher risk of unauthorised recording or eavesdropping, which may be later used as evidence against you in a professional negligence claim. In addition to ensuring that clients are vigilant about confidentiality and security risks, you should always be aware that you do not have full control over the meeting environment when done so online.
  5. Don’t run away from technology: Clients with mobility or other health issues will often prefer an online meeting to an in-person meeting. Furthermore, capacity is best assessed when a client is in a familiar environment, and over the course of multiple meetings, which means an online meeting may be a more efficient mode of communication for all involved. In a post-Covid world, we not only find that we have better access to our clients, but they also have better access to us, which means that rather than delaying or avoiding matters altogether they are instead able to engage with us and obtain the advice they need.

In the digital age, the essence of human connection should never be lost. By integrating these strategies into online interactions and your practice generally, lawyers can establish genuine, respectful, and trusting relationships with elderly and other vulnerable clients. Through active engagement, legal professionals can ensure that engaging with elderly clients in an online environment, whilst not risk-free, is an avenue that should be embraced.

The content above was part of a seminar hosted by Leo Cussen where Max Ezerins and James Dimond of Moores presented on the topic: “Tips on how to detect capacity issues in an online environment vs in person”.

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Disclaimer: This article provides general information only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. You should seek legal advice regarding the application of the law to you or your organisation.