"The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place." George Bernard Shaw
Those legal professionals who are effective in client communications are those who stop, for just a moment, to reflect upon who their clients are, the client's personal make up and whether they are in the legal field familiar with legal terminology. To be effective is knowing that both the receiver and the communicator’s interests and backgrounds are considered. That means a good communicator has listened to his receiver.
Clients always prefer appropriate language that meets their level of understanding and expectations while avoiding ambiguous and complex words, technical jargon and the sometimes easily adaptable “art” of a full explanation but condescending attitude. No one I know thinks that they communicate unclearly and without direction. You write and speak in a manner that you understand is correct. In a sense, it's like describing chocolate. Until you've tasted the real thing, it's impossible to describe.
Communications are generally ineffective when the legal professional neglects to take in all aspects other than written or oral. Let’s not overlook body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, phrasing, choice of words, level of understanding of the legal process, cultural differences and feedback.
Suggestions for improvements
There are five top areas for client communication that I like because they are beyond the “same-old same-old”: (I refer here to communication between you and the client, obviously not when speaking for the client.)
1. Let clients speak for themselves. Clients need to know that their input is important to you. They need acknowledgement that they have been heard.
2. Try to take a no-blame approach. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge mistakes. Challenge what happened rather than ‘who did it’. Acknowledge things could be different in the future and that something can be learned from mistakes. Persistent refusal to acknowledge mistakes because they would be seen as 'failure' has been the cause of many repeated mistakes rather than learning and changing. You want to retain clients, not push them away through lecturing.
3. Show respect. Come out of every conversation with dignity for yourself and your client.
4. Don't volunteer others. Speak only for yourself. It’s too dangerous and you are too vulnerable otherwise. Use of “everyone”, “anyone” and “someone” should be avoided at all costs. Use the phrase 'Here's what I think', or 'I do think’ instead of statements of command, as many politicians tend to practice.
5. Use every opportunity for learning, connection and insight. Each conversation should be a learning experience for you. Clients should come away feeling that while they may or may not like what they heard, they trust you.
Communicating via email or the old-fashioned letter in the U.S. mail
Have you asked your clients their preferred way to communicate? Good communication is not about what you want. It’s about whether receivers accept how you say things (whether or not they agree). The younger generation wouldn’t think there is any other method of communication other than email while many over a “certain age” prefer written letters, messengers, FedEx packages and paper faxes. Don’t make an assumption or error on the side of saving fees if, in the end, it will cost you the client. The more you meet the client’s mindset, the more loyalty you’ll have, particularly in this age of 15 minute client steadfastness.
Rating legal professionals vs. other professions on effective client communication
It is ironic, is it not, that given lawyers pride themselves as excellent wordsmiths that most client complaints and costs disputes are “communication misunderstandings” rather than technical incompetence? I wouldn’t profile any particular profession by putting poor communication skills into any one job category. Unfortunately, it’s pervasive throughout white collar, blue collar and any collar you choose.
The last word
Find out how your body language and voice add to or subtract from first impressions and your presence. In the world of “selfies”, take a picture of yourself in a conversation, have someone else critique your written communication and video-tape yourself communicating and posturing with others. You’re bound to be surprised. I guarantee it.
Learn which words or phrases can rob you of power. For example, the use of “as you may know” can bust up even the very best client relationship. The client may not know, may feel out of the loop, may get paranoid or even get angry with you for not communicating what he should have known earlier. It’s simply a very risky phrase.
Client communication is not easy. The road to successful communication starts with knowing the challenges ahead. Understand the first principle of on-the-job communication: It's a process that needs lifelong practice.