Denny Crane is a legend. A renowned attorney with over fifty years of experience who has never lost a case. He joyfully takes challenges head on, and has fought corrupt politicians, scheming corporations, racial discrimination, and put murderers behind bars. He is bold, charming, outrageous, eccentric and has a flair for the dramatic in the courtroom. His skill as an attorney has brought him acclaim, power and incredible fortune. Denny Crane, the most powerful man in Boston, is a terrible, terrible lawyer.
But it’s not for the reasons you think. Sure, Denny Crane has his issues; he’s unabashedly sexist, he yells in the courtroom at judges and shoots clients, conspires to commit assault and battery, and falls in love with a murderer, etc. Our beloved William Shatner plays Denny Crane with such aplomb that when TV series Boston Legal asks us to suspend disbelief for Denny’s absurd idiosyncrasies and exploits, we do. But what actually makes Denny a terrible lawyer is something with which we all struggle. Denny Crane is a terrible, terrible lawyer because he doesn’t listen to his clients. While we aren’t out shooting clients we disagree with and aren’t (apparently) untouchable by the law, not communicating with clients is a trait many lawyers share with Denny. Clients are demanding we up our game.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Firms, large and small, struggle with one core issue: the overwhelming task of communicating with clients. The 1997-98 Law Society of England and Wales initiated a study of attorneys and clients on their experiences and perspectives with attorney services. Out of 44 clients interviewed, 50% expressed dissatisfaction with their past and/or current lawyers, and cited “communication problems” as their number one issue. It wasn’t that their attorneys were careless, too busy, or were sloppy in their work, but that most attorneys didn’t take the time to communicate properly with their clients. In 2012, the International Bar Association surveyed 219 senior counsel and reported that “poor communication was one of the top reasons” for ending client-lawyer relationships. Across all demographics, we’re struggling; small or large firms, immigration or corporate law, in the United States and abroad, we can’t seem to communicate effectively with our clients.
The reason 50% of clients hate their attorneys wasn’t because their attorneys were careless, too busy, or were sloppy in their work, but rather because most attorneys didn’t take the time to communicate properly with their clients.
But what’s the deal? Communication could mean anything, right? First, let’s talk about what clients mean when they say attorneys are communicating poorly, and then we’ll tell you how to solve the problem.
More than anything, your clients want you to listen. According to numerous surveys and studies, clients often feel that their counsel don’t actively pay attention when they are speaking, speak over clients, offer solutions without bothering to understand the complexity of an issue, and don’t listen to the client’s personal philosophy and legal goals. Some clients expressed feeling frightened of articulating their views and needs, feeling that their counsel ignored or even demeaned them. One client surveyed by the Law Society finally fired her counsel, saying she was
“fed up with her arrogance. I went to my attorney because of her reputation and expertise, but she just doesn’t listen. She never bothers to talk to me and assumes I don’t understand anything. This is my case, I want to be heard.”
Another red flag for client-attorney communication is overly technical language, which feels inaccessible to clients. Clients can feel frustrated, confused and abandoned when left in the legal dust. When asked about his legal experience, one client said,
“My attorney never bothered to explain what all the legal terminology really meant. No matter how many times I asked, he never took the time to tell me what was happening. I felt like I was begging for information about my own case, like I was always being left behind.”
Others have expressed feeling demoralized after meeting with their representation, even when their case was going well. Another client urged,
“I’m not a lawyer, obviously, so I don’t really understand the legal details, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. Please just take the time to talk to me in layman’s terms!”
Across the board, clients want to hear more from us. I can hear you groaning – sometimes it feels like clients want all of your time, all of the time, right? It’s already too much, what more time could you possibly spare? Well, clients don’t actually want all of us, just enough to feel secure and well-informed. Clients report wanting to hear from you about their case, how it will progress, when there is progress, when you have nothing to report, when there is bad or good news, and they want to hear from you even when you’re busy.
According to the American Bar Association Profile of Legal Malpractice Claims, 90% of malpractice suits could have been avoided through better communication skills somewhere along the way.
It’s not just smart to communicate for the sake of your relationship with your client, but to protect yourself from malpractice. When the American Bar Association released their Profile of Legal Malpractice Claims 2008-2011, the numbers spoke for themselves. Only 10% of malpractice claims came from poor application of the law, with the remaining claims resulting from poor communications. That’s roughly 90% of legal malpractice stemming from poor communication – let that sink in. 90% of malpractice suits could have been avoided through better communication skills somewhere along the way. Wow.
How To Blow Your Client’s Mind With Your Communication Skills
Strong communication skills are founded on a basic comprehension of human psychology, and are vital to any successful relationship, including those with our clients. Let’s tackle how we can address our client’s communications concerns.
Listen to Your Client
Clients are desperate for you to listen to them, and listening to them can be very rewarding for you.
- Get to know your client by listening carefully to their legal goals and personal philosophies.
- When your client is speaking, don’t interrupt. Even if you feel you already have a solution, update, wait until your client has finished before you speak.
- Avoid rehearsing answers while your client is talking.
- Consider the emotions behind your client’s comments. What is really driving this conversation?
- Be supportive and smart. Your client knows you are intelligent; don’t attempt to demonstrate your intellect by answering questions before they’ve finished.
- Get comfortable with listening. Good listening skills include listening in silence.
- Utilize the cycle of communication; listen carefully to your client, repeat back what you’ve heard them say, and then respond. Knowing that you’ve heard them and taken the time to understand them validates the client.
What Your Client Will Say
“Just coming here and have someone listen to you, treat you with respect, be on your side … that’s marvelous.”
Make Your Language Accessible
It’s not about dumbing down, it’s about teaching your client and meeting them where they stand. Making your language accessible to your client means understanding them, and understanding that this kind of communication is a learning process for both of you. When talking to your clients, think about;
- Consider your client’s understanding of the law and complex issues. What will be hard for them to understand?
- Think about your client’s communication style and skills. How can you describe the situation to them in a way that they will hear you?
- Translate legal jargon into layman’s terms that your client can comprehend.
- Be patient with your client. You may have to repeat yourself, or find other ways to explain complex issues to them.
- Play it safe. Check in with your clients to make sure they understand. Ask them if anything is confusing and what questions they have (ask what questions they have, not if they have questions. This will make it easier for them to open up if they feel unsure or embarrassed about being confused).
What Your Client Will Say
“At my first meeting with my attorney, I was impressed by his natural ability to talk about technical things with knowledge, but on a level that I could understand. He explained in clear language, he took time to explain technical things. He explained how the system works.”
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” says author and philosopher George Bernard Shaw. He’s right – you may think you’ve communicated frequently with your clients, but they clearly feel differently. Exceed your clients’ expectations and make them feel appreciated by;
- Start by understanding your clients expectations. “Regular communication” to you might mean updates on the case only as they happen, but it might mean “I, your lawyer, will call you every day with anything and everything that has or has not happened with your case” to your client.
- Manage your client’s expectations. You know what they expect, but can you meet them there? If they want updates every day and a response to emails within two hours, but you can’t do that, be honest. Create a realistic communication plan that works for both of you.
- Report updates as soon as possible.
- Respond to calls, emails, and texts in a timely manner. When you’re busy, utilize an to help respond.
- Stay in touch. Even if a case isn’t active or you have no updates, check in with your client. Keep a calendar or database of your clients, when you last spoke with them and why, and reach out to clients who you haven’t spoken to in a bit. This tells your client that you’re invested in the case and you’re regularly thinking about them. Just a check in with your assistant makes your client feel important and visible.
- Anticipate your client’s needs. Know what your client will need and want at various stages, and be ready to manage those needs.
What Your Client Will Say
“I like my current attorney because she checks in, I can have a chat with her, I trust her. The other attorney – I was just a file for him, but for her I’m a real person.”
One simple way that Filevine firms anticipate client communication needs is by giving clients a Filevine texting number right at the client intake, saying “You can use this to reach your entire team. We’ll all see it instantly.” Clients feel connected, while the attorneys don’t have to give out their own personal cell phone number.