The Mandated Client

Prior to my internship, one of my greatest fears was working with the mandated client.  I had enough doubts in my skills as a counselor, the idea of trying to counsel individuals who were mandated by the courts and had no desire to be there was daunting to say the least.  However, I am happy to say that after working with mostly mandated clients, I absolutely love working with this population. They are a challenge, they are exciting and they are teaching me more than I could have ever learned from books or class lecture.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about the mandated client:

  • You can learn a lot from them. A lot of the time, mandated clients have lived in a very different world than you have and if you assume that you know everything, you can lose them very early on in the relationship. Ask them questions!  You don’t always need to be the expert – in fact, asking them for their knowledge will more likely help your relationship grow as opposed to weaken it.   Many of these clients are always told what they need to know, but when you put the ball in their court and ask them to teach you, it helps booster their esteem and foster their autonomy.
  • Just like everyone else, they lie – however, for them the stakes may be a little higher. Many of these clients are here through the court system and one false move can potentially get them “lugged”. (For those that don’t know, “lugged” can be used to mean thrown into prison – you learn something new every day).  With the fear of prison looming over them, they sometimes lie in order to be seen in a more positive light.  Try to remember where your honesty goes when you’re in trouble with the law (I’m talking to you, driver whose father is honestly in the hospital every time they get pulled over for speeding).
  • Working with them will make you a better counselor.  As we all know, it is very easy to get comfortable with any work that we are doing and with that comfort often comes a certain level of laziness.  Working with mandated clients forces you to constantly be upping your game and thinking creatively in order to help them get as much as they can from your program.
  • Not all mandated clients come from the judicial system.  Chances are, no matter which site you are at, you are going to come into contact with a mandated client. Some clients are mandated to therapy by their partner in order to save their relationship and you can run into the same types of obstacles with these clients as you do with those from the courts.  No matter where the mandated client comes from, always work on highlighting their autonomy and the choices they have throughout the therapeutic process.
  • They may not be motivated to change.  Often, voluntary clients come to you because they have a behavior/thought that they want to change and are in the contemplation stage of change or later.  These clients are usually “easier” because they are already in the mindset of wanting to change.  Mandated clients are often not in that same mindset.  Many mandated clients are in the precontemplation stage of change so therapy will need to begin in a very different way.  Motivational Interviewing techniques that help look for and evoke change talk will be highly beneficial!
  • Clients are often mandated to counseling with a diagnosed disorder.  When clients come to you from the judicial system, often, they will come already diagnosed with a disorder like Alcohol Use Disorder (thanks for the new terminology DSM 5).  Many times, after speaking with the client, you will come to realize that perhaps their diagnosis does not match up with what you are witnessing.  Always be careful to look for misdiagnosis or co-occurring disorders so that you are not wasting the client’s time and well-being helping to treat for the incorrect disorder.
  • Watch out for burnout! Working with this population, many counselors reach a point of burnout.  Between the no-show clients, clients returning to jail/prison, positive UA results, and a general lack of motivation for change, many counselors begin to get jaded by the process and some reach a point of burnout. Be sure to be mindful of your own thoughts and behaviors and to watch out for the signs of burnout!  While it is true that you will not get through to every client, you will get through to some and together you can help turn them around.  This is such a rewarding process and will remind you why you are in the profession.
  • Lastly, the most important knowledge I was given when I started my internship – some clients will end up going back to prison.  It does not matter if you are the best counselor in the world and you do everything correctly, some of your clients will end up going back into the judicial system.  Remember that autonomy we talked about earlier and how important it was for the client to realize they still had it? Well, it’s just as important for the counselor to remember the client’s autonomy when they are brought back to prison. Our clients make their own decisions and it is their responsibility to deal with the consequences of that decision.  We are here to help them to the best of our abilities, but their choices are their own.

One thought on “The Mandated Client

  1. Hi. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of the experiences and activities you posted. It’s obvious that you really care about the clients you are working with and it’s encouraging me to use your activities (at varying times of course).
    Thank you for sharing the information. I’m currently a MSW Clinical Intern working in a substance use treatment facility (outpatient). I’ve been told several times not to get discouraged if some clients choose to continue using and/or break laws. After reading what you wrote about how it doesn’t matter how good you are or how much you know, That clicked and things started to make sense.
    I hope to read more from you in the future!


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