Delivering Tough News from a Distance: Reflections on Our First Major Counseling Session with Our Client

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Just as it is never easy to receive difficult information, it can often be even tougher to deliver bad news to others. As lawyers, the temptation to “fix” is ever-present. Lawyers are quintessential problem-solvers, after all. But sometimes, you can’t “fix” a tough conversation. Sometimes bad news just cannot be wordsmithed. In another lifetime and down a different career path, I once learned about the concept of a “non-anxious presence.” A “non-anxious presence” refers to a person who can remain present and connected to someone who is experiencing a difficult moment, while retaining a strong enough sense of self not to get pulled into anxious reactivity. Such a person can serve as an “anchor” for someone who is dealing with a crisis, remaining both present with and identified apart from someone. The concept is similar to the idea of “holding space” for someone—to remain present without judgment toward one’s self or the other person.

I have been on a life-long journey of trying to grow into being more of a “non-anxious presence,” but our counseling session today reminded me that I have a long way to go (as does most of the legal profession generally, I’d wager). There are some conversations that are just tough, no matter who is delivering the news. The minute we shift the focus of those hard discussions from the client to ourselves—anxiously trying to figure out how to minimize our emotional discomfort or manage the client’s emotions for them—we have left the client-centered counseling model behind. Sometimes the greatest indication of respect for a client and acknowledgment of the fraught nature of our immigration system is to deliver tough news in a clear, compassionate way and give space for the client to process the news however they need to.

As student attorneys with the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, Andrew Toney-Noland, JD ’22, and his clinic partners represented an undocumented father with strong ties to the U.S. who had sustained a criminal conviction. Students wrote a brief to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on their client’s behalf, developing intricate legal arguments to argue for his eligibility for cancellation of his deportation case. Students also engaged in client counseling, meeting with their client regularly via Zoom to discuss his case and answer questions.