Communication Skills Part I: Communicating with New Clients
In my speeches to young lawyers around the country I tell them there is no more important skill to the successful practice of law than to effectively communicate with all of the participants in your legal system. This includes your clients, any court or governmental unit which is involved in your practice, as well as opposing counsel. Your ability to communicate effectively demonstrates integrity, knowledge, empathy, and continuing thoughtful evaluation of changing circumstances.
I also personally believe that good communication habits also make you a better lawyer because effective communication practices require you to constantly evaluate, distill, and clarify positions, changing dynamics, opportunities for resolution, and risk. But, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s discuss this in the general chronological order of practice.
Always remember that you rarely encounter a new client in a celebratory mood. Clients who are coming to see lawyers (just like doctors) are usually trying to address a stressful failure in their life, whether that be an unexpected social condition, a failure resulting from their own inappropriate decisions, or an unforeseen event like an injury or other loss caused by themselves or an opposing party. Bottom line: new clients are rarely happy.
Your communications skills, presentation, and forming the “bond” of trust and professionalism starts the moment the client meets you for the first time. In the majority of situations, nothing will be more important than the bond of respect you form in your initial interview. So, how do you do that?
First and foremost, present yourself as a professional. For me, someone who has been practicing nearly 40 years, I will always wear a tie: I want to look like the image that a new client would expect someone of my age and generation to look like. Your own personal style, your age, your cultural orientation may dictate a different look, but again, the result should be that the Client sees a person who looks professional. If you present unprofessionally, you add an unnecessary barrier which you must overcome.
Be Sensitive, Attentive, and Thorough
In any initial interview, you “begin the healing process.” Devote 100% of your attention to interviewing and sizing up this client. Emotionally, this means empathizing with their plight, being patient as they unload information (which often may be more than you actually need), and simply allowing the Client to vent.
As you will see, because the goal of this initial interview is “reasonable expectations” on everyone’s part, you may be required to “push back” on unrealistic expectations, bad facts, etc. You cannot do that (ie., thoughtfully criticize or push back) with credibility unless you have thoroughly extracted all the information from the client that will be the basis of your overall analysis. Further, by being patient, you may discover facts which change your opinion of the case.
The Goal: Reasonable Expectations
Remember, your client is always looking for you to lead the client to a solution. Lawyers are taught early in law school that a good contract requires a “meeting of the minds.” This applies to the attorney-client relationship. The object of a good interview is to result in reasonable expectations: the scope of work the lawyer will do, the relief or resolution being sought, the alternatives to be explored, and the basis of the fee. Moreover, the client’s willingness to pay you (as well as your willingness to continue working) depends on each side honoring this agreement. Boiled down to its most basic formula the interchanged messages should be:
- From Lawyer’s perspective, communicate: “I will do this for you and you will compensate me by doing X.”
- From the client’s perspective, the client should leave with these thoughts and understandings: “I understand what you are going to do for me, what my alternatives are, how long it might take, and how I will compensate you.”
Keep this primary concept in mind: If you achieve reasonable expectations, it allows you to collaborate with the client to achieve realistic and lawful goals and outcomes. Keep the word “collaboration” in the front of your mind.
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