Fundamentally, the legal profession is based on effective communication. Whether arguing a case before a jury, communicating with clients, or building relationships with business connections, successful lawyers need to be able to communicate succinctly.
In fact, communication-related skills, competencies, and qualities made up four of the top ten necessary foundations in the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System’s Foundations for Practice Survey, where 24,000 lawyers across the U.S. weighed in on skills that were necessary for modern lawyers in both the short and long-term.
Despite this, many attorneys still seem to struggle with communicating in an effective, timely, and concise manner. One study found that 36 percent of malpractice claims filed between 1997 and 2007 were attributed to miscommunication and delays with clients, making miscommunication the leading cause of malpractice claims over this time frame.
More than 4,200 communications claims—an average of 711 a year—were reported to LAWPRO between 2005 and 2010. The total cost of these claims to date? Roughly $150 million–and likely to rise as more recent years’ claims are resolved.
For today’s attorneys, the struggle is real. Between trying to develop new business, managing an existing caseload, marketing their firms, and juggling any other number of tasks necessary to keep a law firm thriving, taking the time to hone client communication skills can seem superfluous. However, in terms of mitigating malpractice risk while simultaneously boosting client satisfaction, there are few things lawyers can do that are more impactful.
Want a serious boost for your professional communication skills—and your bottom line? Watch our free webinar on professional communications hosted by Clio’s lawyer in residence, Joshua Lenon, and Alli Gerkman of the IAALS.
So, how can lawyers level up their communication skills? Start by following the tips below, and you’ll be a client communication master in no time.
1. Be Proactive
Give the client the information they need before they need it. Clients don’t want to send multiple emails or make multiple phone calls requesting information—particularly when they’re being billed by the minute.
Likely, you’re not dealing with this type of thing for the first time. You should have a sense of what questions and concerns a client might have.
Get in the habit of answering your clients’ questions pre-emptively. After client calls or meetings, send a secure message that summarizes what was discussed and provides supplemental info for next steps. Stay in regular communication with clients to deliver both good and bad news.
Also, set clear expectations to avoid disappointment. Specify in your engagement letters how often communications can be expected and what they will entail. While you won’t be able to avoid EVERY urgent client email or phone call, clearly setting communication expectations up front—and then exceeding those expectations—can go a long way.
2. Boost your EQ
Contrary to popular belief, clients aren’t coming to you solely for your encyclopedic knowledge of the law. A little empathy can go a long way, particular in high-stress and emotionally volatile matters such as divorce, bankruptcy, or criminal defense.
A highly developed emotional intelligence (or EQ) can help you better read both your own and your clients’ emotional responses and adapt your behavior appropriately.
How can lawyers improve their emotional intelligence? Legal business coach Irene Leonard suggests four ways:
- Learn to recognize your own feelings by taking a step back from them. Observe an emotion and the reaction it produces within you. Practice identifying your emotions and their real causes. Anger, for example, may spring from frustration or self-doubt.
- Work on managing your feelings to avoid destructive communication. It’s important to know which feelings are appropriate to express in a particular situation, and which are better kept private and dealt with later. Learn to control your emotions, not suppress them.
- Realize that communication involves a lot more than what is said. Empathy can be developed through listening carefully and observing people’s body language and facial expressions.
- Deepen your connections with other people. Learn to empathize, to talk about your feelings, to listen patiently, and to calm yourself down before discussing a problem.
3. Listen—and do it well
While most communication advice seems to be focused on a lawyer’s role as a communicator rather than a receiver, effective listening can have a dramatic impact on client satisfaction, and even on case success.
A study for the Law Society of England and Wales found that half of clients polled had worked with lawyers they did not like. The study concluded it was, more often than not, the way lawyers interacted with clients that was the issue. Lawyers who employed active listening (rather than operating based on assumptions and incomplete information) were able to better understand the needs of their clients—and respond accordingly.
Jennifer Romig of the aptly-named blog Listen Like a Lawyer has assembled a fantastic checklist on how to listen analytically in client meetings (or, really, any conversation where an analytical mindset is required.) Here are some of the pointers:
- Focus your attention
- Take notes on meaning, not verbatim
- Watch for speaker cues about the main points
- Note the relationship of sub-points
- Afterwards, set aside notes taken during session
- From memory, write down the main point
- Write down sub-points
- Re-write action items to clarify and reinforce (while remaining consistent)
By following these steps, and by using Jennifer’s excellent blog as a resource, lawyers can highlight where their own listening skills fall short and address problem areas.
While there is no clear-cut path to 100 percent effective communication, the data shows that there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to legal practitioners. Learning to communicate, build trust, and manage client expectations will not only improve your client relationships, but will make you a more effective lawyer.