Can you hear me now? 5 Tips for Effective Client Communication

"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.



"Paralegals in position to improve reputation of legal profession"

Well, yeah! This is indeed a welcome news article:

"Paralegals are critical to improving the reputation of lawyers in the community. The legal profession still suffers from negative stereotypes and some do indeed think we're better off 'at the bottom of the sea,' as the lawyer joke goes. Paralegals can pull lawyers out of this muddy, messy, pool of disrepute by displaying the following qualities.

* Honesty and integrity
* Professionalism
* Giving back through pro bono work and volunteering
* Enthusiasm"

Author Elizabeth Balfour's speech at the annual San Diego Paralegals' Association Luncheon in June 2006 provided criteria for the Distinguished Paralegals Awards.


9 Tips for Office Parties

Office party guidance compiled by Kring & Chung from Department of Labor information. Who knew the DOL cared this much about parties?

"The United States Department of Labor’s Working Partners for an Alcohol-and Drug-Free Workplace has prepared two highlight articles titled, Send Your Employees a Safe and Sober Message About Office Parties and Drinking and Nine Tips for Office Celebrations.

"We prepared an article highlighting key points in these articles and a section on employer liability for accidents that are caused by intoxicated employees who drive home after a company sponsored holiday party.  We hope this information will be helpful to you in promoting a safe and happy holiday season."


Day, Berry Merges, Becomes 'Day Pitney'

News of a law firm merger in Connecticut, 'driven by client needs':

"Day, Berry & Howard, one of the state's largest law firms, will change its 74-year-old name as it merges with a New Jersey-based law firm to double its staff of lawyers and extend its geographic reach.

"Day, Berry's merger with Pitney Hardin, based in Morristown, N.J., will create a firm with about 400 lawyers and nine offices stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C. The combined firm will be known as Day Pitney, taking the portion of each firm's name that would be the most recognizable to clients, executives at both firms said.

[snip]

"Jim Sicilian, chairman of the executive committee at Day, Berry, said the merger was spurred mostly by clients wanting to reduce the number of law firms they deal with. As a result, firms need to expand on their areas of expertise, he said.

[snip]

"No layoffs are expected, Sicilian said, because the combination of the two firms is expected to increase the number of clients the merged firms serve.

"In addition to lawyers, the two firms employ about 450 staff members, including paralegals, administrative assistants and office managers."


"Baker Botts Hosts 'Love Shack' for Clients"

Goodness gracious -- read what's going on in Texas!

"'Thanks for the business; now here's a little "Rock Lobster.'"

"It's an adventurous dish for any big Texas firm to serve its clients to show its appreciation. But the Dallas office of Houston-based Baker Botts presented that and more at its annual client appreciation party Feb. 25.

"Lest anyone be confused, the above-mentioned crustacean is not a fancy seafood entree but rather an infectious dance tune sung by the legendary Athens, Ga.-based new wave band The B-52's. Baker Botts -- which traces its origins back to 1840 and counts former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker and former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips as partners -- hired the band to play live at its Dallas client appreciation party. And the firm, which represents Dallas' Halliburton Co. and Houston's Reliant Energy, chose a most appropriate setting for its clients and lawyers to hear a band named after an old bomber: The Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field, which features genuine war planes hanging from the ceiling.

[snip]

"Who says Baker Botts is stuffy?"

Well, I would, & have....who knew? BTW, BB says this about paralegals: "An integral part of any great law firm is a strong paralegal program." Got that right!