The following article was originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of San Diego Lawyer.
Lawyers express themselves on behalf of others for a living, whether the work is done in a courtroom or from behind a desk. As a result, some practitioners would likely be amused or offended at the notion that they might not be effectively communicating with their own clients. Yet, the No. 1 reason for client complaints to the State Bar of California revolves around lack of communication with their lawyer. The truth of the matter is that lawyers get busy. And when lawyers get busy, there is often a rush to get things done, move on to the next project, check boxes, get things filed and go, go, go! Communication — real communication — suffers as a result.
As George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Be honest with yourself and think about the way you practice and communicate. If you’re open to it, there are two methods that can help you see immediate positive changes in the quality of communication with your clients: active listening and compassionate responsiveness.
There’s a video circulating on YouTube in which you see a woman and a man from behind sitting together on a couch, and you hear her complaining about this constant ache in her head and how frustrated she is with it. She turns to the man, showing her profile, which features a large nail stuck in her forehead. The man, clearly frustrated himself by her complaining, says, “It’s because you have a nail in your forehead.” Instead of fixing the problem, this just sets off the woman about how it’s not about the nail in the forehead. She doesn’t want him to fix anything; she just wants him to listen to her. So, when she finishes her second rant and his response is, “That must be very frustrating,” she feels validated and heard.
As counselors, we fix things. That’s what we get paid to do. But it’s not all that we should be doing to ensure that we are engaging in effective communication with clients.
Clients want to be heard. Contrary to most common intakes or client interactions, being heard is different from being questioned, interviewed or judged for what they did or failed to do. In that “analysis mode,” all the lawyer is doing is focusing on how she or he will fix the problem, spin bad facts or meet elements of a cause of action, and ends up missing a great deal of the information being shared.
Active listening is a skill that has been raised with growing frequency in the legal field, from Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College to Brene Brown to the SDCBA’s own Dialogue on Diversity in 2016. The idea is to turn off the “fix-it” mode and listen to the client.
Five Tips on How to Listen Better
- Sit with your client, instead of across from them with a desk or table between you.
- Pay attention to, and even copy, your client's body language as he or she speaks to get a better understanding of how he or she is feeling.
- Listen to the words from a place where there is no judgment, just a real attempt to understand.
- Remember it’s not about you, or how you would have handled a similar situation. It’s about the client. Be there to be of real service.
- Help your client be heard. Sometimes while listening, you’ll get to the point where the client is “stuck” or at a loss for words. You can focus in on what you’re feeling from listening to the person and give him or her a little prompt, like the one in the YouTube video where the man said, “That must be very frustrating.” If it’s true, the client will agree and it will help fuel him or her. If not, they’ll likely correct you (which doesn’t mean you did a bad job, it just means you helped the client understand what was not correct and help guide him or her to what was correct).
The amount of phone calls and emails lawyers receive can be overwhelming sometimes. When there’s nothing going on in a case, talking to that particular client might drop a few levels in the priority perspective. You know nothing is going to happen for the next 30 days. But does your client understand what that means? You may have told the client, but with his or her stress or pain level, how much of the conversation did he or she take away? Make sure to give your clients regular updates on what is happening or even why nothing is happening in their case.
If you don’t have time to do it proactively, then make sure you respond within a business day when a client contacts you. There’s no worse feeling than rejection, and silence can often be misconstrued for it.
A good rule of thumb is to respond to each client in the way you’d want someone to respond to your loved one going through the same process. When it’s too much and you don’t have time to sit down and type out a meaningful response, take 30 seconds to type or tell them that you’re swamped today but wanted to let him or her know you got the call/email and will get back with a meaningful response by X day. Unless it's an emergency, most clients will be satisfied with that because they want you to be able to take the time to compose a meaningful response.
The better you can communicate with your client, the stronger your understanding will be of how you can best represent him or her and the fewer miscommunications or hard feelings will exist during the process. You’ll be a better lawyer for it, and your clients will feel secure in the placement of their trust in you.