Volunteering in the Citizens Advice Bureau really taught me something important. The value of soft skills. My law degree helped when it came to understanding some of the areas I was advising on. But the giving of advice was actually the easy part if you got everything else right. I went into the job thinking the exact opposite – that the work would be like answering a set of problem questions. Only with real people. I was wrong.
The actual name of my role at the CAB was “Gateway Assessor”. It was my job to take calls from members of the public and either give them general advice or take their details & refer them to the relevant adviser. Everything depended on the nature of the problem the client had.
You got general non legal enquiries like “There are bees in my garden when should I do?”. This isn’t even a joke, someone genuinely asked this. I gave them the council pest control number! These are the sort of issues you can deal with there and then over the phone. More common questions in this category are people asking for general advice on a certain subject, or people asking for a definition like “What exactly is a guarantor?”. For the non bee related questions you usually end up researching the issue on Advice Guide (the CAB information website) and then explaining the information to the client.
A lot of these simple questions could evolve into something much more complex during the conversation with the client. For example the client could just want some simple advice on budgeting, but then could go on to say that they’ve received a letter from a company stating that they will be starting legal action due to debts owed. Now in this situation it becomes obvious that the client needs more specialist help. Although I could educate them a little bit more on the matter by directing them to Advice Guide, they would probably need to see a face to face advisor. So the task then turns to questioning and writing case notes.
You need to get everything out of the client that you believe will help the specialist adviser. Much of this is common sense. In a debt issue you would ask how much money was owed, who it was owed to, if they’re employed, how much income they have etc. But you also need to know what they’re not telling you. The debts they’ve mentioned could just be the tip of the iceberg, or there could be a relationship breakdown behind the debt issue. This would then branch out into its own separate problem. But if you don’t know about it, you can’t help the client. I think people don’t like to mention all of their problems because they think you’ll be over burdened, or maybe they are just trying to deal with things one at a time. This isn’t the right thing to do – time may be an issue. Especially when it comes to appeals.
Regardless of the complexity of the issue we tried to take down a few details from each client. This is so the CAB can justify their funding and essentially say “Look – we helped all these people in January”. Briefly recording case notes on even the simple calls can perhaps help secure future funding.
What I found hard about the job
Being a man I’m awful at multi tasking so I found talking to the client, taking their information down, and researching their problem all at the same time a real challenge.
The hardest part was dealing with people who had lost loved ones and on top of that had various legal issues they needed to sort out. It really is heartbreaking to tell a father he couldn’t claim funeral expenses because his son was no longer classified as a child.
Another sort of challenge was dealing with the emotions of a client. They need to be in a calm state so they’re able to talk to you. Obviously if they’re very upset or angry then you need to calm them down. It took a while to get comfortable at doing this. I’m really not good at comforting people – I do ok when comforting friends and family by dishing out a few hugs / bottles of whisky. Unfortunately this isn’t possible over the phone. For people who were angry or upset I usually started by acknowledging their emotion; “Yes I can understand why you’re so angry / upset” and then going on to reassure them that the Citizens Advice Bureau would do everything in its power to help them. You just need to remember that the anger isn’t directed at you.
When we come across problem questions at uni they are set out in a nice, logical and structured way. Unfortunately when you’re being told about a problem it’s very unstructured. This makes sense really – especially when someone is telling you about a complex problem. It’s remarkable just how unstructured verbal communication can be when you have a ton of points to communicate. So at first, when writing the case notes, it was very hard to put together the whole problem in an easy to read way. Especially when you’d not had experience doing it before.
What I enjoyed
In a way I enjoyed doing the things I found hard because I was improving my skills and being challenged. For example it felt good to make sense of an incredibly complex debt problem and type it up into crystal clear case notes.
The work was very diverse too, as soon as the phone started ringing you didn’t know what the caller would want. It could be about benefits, housing, a consumer issue, a relationship breakdown, debt or any number of miscellaneous questions.
It was really nice hearing how much of a difference the information I’d given could make. Many people were really happy finding out they could claim the winter fuel payment or some other sort of benefit they were entitled to.
Many of these people were facing hard times too. So even a small amount of extra income every month can make a massive difference.
Even though gateway assessors don’t directly get involved in helping a client after the initial phone contact, it’s nice to know that you play your part in the whole process. A process which could have a massive impact on a persons life.
It’s also nice to know that you’re actually doing legal work which has an impact on real people. After you’ve spent all this time on your legal training putting it into practice for the first time feels great!
A valuable experience
Now obviously working at the CAB isn’t the same as working for a firm. But the skill you need will be similar. Whenever I hear people saying that they want to work in law I always wonder how much their expectations differ to reality. I know mine did. Working at the CAB really demonstrated to me the value of long term experience. Experience in a role where you have responsibility – rather than just shadowing.
While legal knowledge is very important the soft skills need to be there too, as without them you can’t properly put the legal knowledge to good use. Before I worked at the CAB I didn’t understand this – I thought of soft skills and legal knowledge as two very separate and distinct entities.
Working at the CAB was a great way to build these soft skills and I would fully recommend volunteering to anyone who is interested in a career in law, or just wants to help out. It should give you a good taste of what’s to come in a legal career and boost your client interaction skills tenfold. Hopefully this post has given you a rough idea of what it’s like to be a gateway assessor. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments!
Note: Some details changed to further preserve anonymity, although the essence of the facts remain. No specific clients are referenced – these are just general experiences.