Judges or Auctioneers Gavel Or Hammer And Big Money Stack On Wooden Bench Or Wooden Table Background, Concept For Financial Crime, Close Up

Many attorneys offer their services on a pro bono basis to people in poverty. While these attorneys genuinely wish to help their clients, they are often unaware of some hidden differences between them and their clients that can dramatically affect their ability to communicate with and represent their clients. Namely, because people living in poverty often have a vastly different experience of life than people from middle class, they often have different unspoken rules and mindsets from those in middle class. These differences in mindsets between economic classes can be dramatic.

This article lays out some of the differences in mindsets and hidden rules that can be found between people from middle class and people in poverty, as well as some suggested strategies for attorneys to overcome these differences. The hope is that attorneys may become aware of these different mindsets and hidden rules, take them into consideration when representing their pro bono clients, and therefore provide their clients with higher-quality services.

Terms: Mindsets and hidden rules

There are mindsets and there is money. A person can have the money but not the mindset, or the mindset and not the money. Mindsets create hidden rules, cueing systems people use to know whether you do or do not belong. Remember: Everyone wants more money, but not everyone wants the middle-class mindset.

Hidden rules exist by race, by religion, by region of the country, by occupation, and by class. Hidden rules are determined by an environment and, in turn, often determine how individuals survive in that environment.

Understanding some hidden rules from generational poverty

The hidden rules from generational poverty can affect a client’s behavior during consultations with attorneys and during court proceedings. Below are examples of some hidden rules that may result in a client acting differently than an attorney might expect:

  • People are possessions. You defend them. You fight for them. If it is a spouse or a child, they are yours. You have the right to beat them. (This is different from middle class, in which only things are possessions.)
  • Education is not valued and is sometimes feared. When people become educated, they leave the community, and you have lost them.
  • Institutions are distrusted. The system is against you. You withhold information unless you like the person asking for it. If you like the person, you will defend the person and be more open with information.
  • You share your money, and often you share your drugs. You do not share your woman or your man.
  • You are respected if you are personally and physically strong.
  • Entertainment is a priority in decision making because entertainment takes away the pain of poverty. You will be more respected by your clients from poverty if you deliver bad news with humor. They look to see if you have a sense of humor about yourself.
  • Lawyers must teach clients not to laugh in court. You laugh at bad news or when you are disciplined. This is how you save face in poverty.
  • The important information in poverty is given nonverbally. About 86% of every conversation is nonverbal, but in poverty it is 100%. Clients watch your nonverbals and the nonverbals of the judge. They pay very little attention to the words. That is why shootings occur over such simple issues as “He was looking at me wrong.”
  • The noise level is higher in poverty.
  • Emotions are openly displayed. Drama is a form of entertainment that is highly valued and enjoyed. Clients often do not understand why it is not wanted in court.
  • You believe in destiny and fate. You do not have choice about who you are, which in turn determines what you do. But what you can try to do is not get caught. If you get caught, you will deny what you have done. You know you did it, but you deny it because you do not want to get punished. If you do get punished, it means you have received forgiveness and have the right to do it again. Courts strongly push the concepts of choice and decision-making for the future, but these are largely foreign concepts in generational poverty. This is one of the reasons clients may immediately return to criminal behavior after being released from jail. They believe they have been forgiven and have the right to do it again.
  • Compliments are given in the negative. Positive compliments given in public are not wanted, nor are they respected in poverty. They are often interpreted as an attempt to soften or weaken an individual so the individual can be used.
  • Decisions about time and money are made against survival, entertainment, and relationships. (In middle class, decisions are made against work, achievement, and material security. In wealth, decisions are made against financial, political, and social connections.)
  • Psychologists and psychiatrists are rarely told the truth by people from poverty. They are usually viewed as part of the con game and, whenever possible, are to be manipulated into viewing the client as a helpless victim.

Strategy: Understand these differences, and know that you often cannot draw the same inferences from the behavior of a client in generational poverty as you would from the same behavior from a client from middle class.

Strategy: Build a relationship of mutual respect. The client will have no respect for you if you are not physically or personally strong. They will have no respect for you if you show fear. Do not appear to be weak.

Strategy: Use these phrases with clients: This will help you win more often. This will keep you from getting cheated. This will give you more power, control, and respect. Your mind is a tool (or weapon) that no one can take away from you. This will help you keep the people you love safer.

Understanding some different mindsets regarding family structure and sexual identity

The mindset of generational poverty also commonly affects a client’s behavior during consultations with attorneys and during court proceedings. Below are examples of hidden rules of poverty that may result in a client acting differently than an attorney might expect:

  • Family structure often has three characteristics in generational poverty: common law, multiple relationships, and single parent (often headed by a female).
  • The primary rite of passage (what an adolescent can do to be considered an equal by adults) for people in poverty is fathering or mothering a child. (In contrast, in middle class, it is usually getting a job, a driver’s license, or a diploma. In wealth, it is often when you start getting money from your trust fund; another rite of passage occurs later when you take control of the principal in your trust fund.)
  • The male identities that are most admired in generational poverty are those of physical fighters or lovers. When you are a fighter or lover, there are periods of time when you have to disappear because people are looking for you. If the law is looking for you, one of the things you do is quit your job so you can run and hide. If you do not quit your job, the law finds you at work. When you run and hide, you will typically find a new woman with whom to stay, and your former woman will find another man. This is simply how everyone survives.

There is a sociologist who says: If you want to break a culture, all you have to do is take work away from men because it changes identity. Work gives role identity—I am a teacher, a lawyer, a judge. But when you do not have work, identity becomes gender identity. I am a “real man.” I am a “real woman.” And proof of who you are is in your sexual activity.

Courts and judges do not have much respect for men who see themselves as physical fighters or lovers. Macho displays in court do not help the client’s cause. The client does not understand why the judge or lawyer is such a wimp. When your identity is that of a physical fighter, you will probably have a criminal record and an unstable work history.

  • Female identity is about being a caretaker and a rescuer, but sometimes women will allow children to be sexually or physically abused by the man in the house in part because of the concept that a “real woman” has a “real man,” and abuse is part of that identity. In other words, a real woman has a real man, and in order to keep the real man, the real woman will suffer abuse and will not intervene on behalf of the children.

Differences in story structure

Getting a story from a client about what happened can be very frustrating to lawyers and judges. This is because the story structure in generational poverty is not plot-driven, but is rather a random, episodic, emotional replay. In educated households, story structure is based on plot. The story has cause and effect, typically starts at the beginning, and goes on to the end.

In generational poverty, however, the typical story starts at the end. Then there is a brief episode or vignette followed by listener participation. Then there is another brief episode or vignette and more commentary from the listeners, and so on. The events that get put into the story are those that have emotional significance to the teller.

Strategy: Ask the client to tell the story three times. The first time, you just listen. The second time, you listen but interrupt and take notes. The third time, you tell the story back from your notes and ask the client to tell you if you got anything wrong. Often the best information is gathered this third time. The teller is so intent on your getting it correct that they will tell you things you haven’t heard before.

Differences in planning

To survive in work or school, one must be verbal, abstract, and proactive—you have to plan. But to survive in poverty, one must be sensory, nonverbal, and reactive—you do not plan, you react.

Researcher Reuven Feuerstein says this:

If you cannot plan, then you cannot predict.

If you cannot predict, you do not know cause and effect.

If you do not know cause and effect, you do not know consequence.

If you do not know consequence, then you cannot control impulsivity.

If you cannot control impulsivity, then you have an inclination toward criminal behavior.

 Differences in understanding of abstract constructs: Time, space, and processes

In poverty, there is little understanding of the abstract constructs of time, space, and process. Time is kept emotionally in poverty—by how it feels. In court, time is kept using abstract constructs—minutes, days, hours. Consequently, clients often show up late or on the wrong day.

Strategy: Ask clients to let you help them add important dates to the calendar apps on their phones. Be sure to set reminder alerts for the morning of the appointment and for one hour before the appointment starts.

References to abstract space are not used and are often not even understood in poverty. Right, left, front, back, etc. are rarely used in the casual register. This means that reading a map, doing math, and similar tasks are not always understood. Paper documents given to clients in poverty are often lost because the client did not have a way to keep the documents in space.

Strategy: Put your business card on a magnet so clients can put it on the refrigerator and find it easily later.

Processes such as planning, comparing, predicting, and knowing what will stay the same and what will change (identifying constancies) are carried out at the nonverbal, sensory level in poverty. Performing these processes at the abstract level is often not done nor understood. When you explain to a client the court processes and proceedings, the client often has no idea what you are explaining.

Strategy: Use drawings and stories to teach abstract constructs. For example: Use the rungs of a ladder to illustrate the steps the court will go through.

Differences in Language

Every language in the world has five registers, as described by the chart below:

Register Explanation
Frozen Language that is always the same. For example: the Lord’s prayer, wedding vows, court proceedings.
Formal The standard sentence syntax and word choice of work and school. Has complete sentences and specific word choices.
Consultative Formal register when used in conversation. Discourse pattern not quite as direct as formal register.
Casual Language between friends. Characterized by 400- to 800-word vocabulary. Word choice general and not specific. Conversation dependent on nonverbal assists. Sentence syntax often incomplete.
Intimate Language between twins and lovers (also sexual harassment).

Individuals from generational poverty usually know only the casual register, while courts operate in the formal and frozen registers. The casual register has half the words of those used regularly in the formal register.

In addition, the casual register contains virtually no abstract language—language that is non-sensory and representational. For example, the law is a written document that represents behaviors, but it is not the behavior. A check represents money, but it cannot be used as cash. (You cannot write valid checks if you do not have money in the bank. Checks represent money.) A corporate handbook represents behaviors, but it is not the behaviors. Therefore, many individuals in poverty have no respect for written documents. To them it is just paper, not what it represents to those in middle class. In the minds of many people from poverty, these documents are totally unrelated to daily reality.

In addition to the lack of abstract representational language, the other issue for the courts is that clients from generational poverty often do not understand the language that is being used. For example, lawyer to client: “What were you doing at the time of the incident?” Client: “Nothing.” This response is often viewed as deliberately disrespectful, but it is often the only language the individual from generational poverty has.

Conflict resolution is almost impossible when one cannot converse in the formal register. This is because conflict resolution depends upon the ability to discuss an issue rather than simply arguing at the personal level. I once heard a married couple in poverty argue for 15 minutes over which of them the cat loved the most. The argument was really about who was most lovable, but being lovable is an abstract construct, so the argument took place at a personal level.

Strategy: Translate the formal language of the court into casual register for the client so the client can understand what is happening. Example: “There is no longer any joy in this activity,” (formal register), becomes “This sucks,” (casual register).

Strategy: Teach two sets of rules. Use an analogy involving games. Do you use the same rules in football that you do in basketball? No. Different game, different rules.


A Framework for Understanding Poverty defines poverty as the extent to which an individual does without resources. These resources include financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical resources, in addition to support systems, relationships/role models, and knowledge of hidden rules.

Judge Charlie Pratt in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has begun to assess his clients’ resources as they come into his court. He is finding that usually, by the time the client gets into court, the client only has two or three resources left. He is also finding that the court tends to take away from the resources the clients have left rather than adding to them.


It is difficult to interact with people who are enveloped in different (and often unconscious) hidden rules and mindsets. Attorneys undertaking to represent people in poverty are doing more than just taking on another legal case; they are undertaking an interaction that requires sensitivity, awareness, and extra diligence. Successfully understanding and accommodating these differences results in higher-quality services to the client and a greater level of satisfaction in the attorney for a job well done.