May 21, 2014 – It was Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who once said “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Such words ring true for the attorney-client relationship, which starts and ends with communication.
Just as patients may resent a doctor’s poor “bedside manner,” clients may resent when lawyers fail to communicate effectively in terms they can understand, or with the right dosage of empathy or compassion about the importance of the case or matter.
When lawyers don’t communicate effectively, clients are more likely to be dissatisfied, especially when the outcome of a case is not favorable to the client, says attorney Tom Watson, a vice president at Wisconsin Lawyer Mutual Insurance Company (WILMIC).
“A lack of good client communication is at the heart of some of the malpractice claims we see,” said Watson. “These mistakes are among the easiest to prevent.”
“The risk of a bad client relationship, or worse, a malpractice claim, is significantly reduced when a lawyer puts conversations in writing, crafts a detailed engagement letter, makes the phone call when needed, and discusses expectations with the client.”
Watson noted that 80 percent of respondents in a national survey said their lawyers should do a better job communicating with clients. And poor communication is the root cause of nearly 15 percent of malpractice claims filed with WILMIC, Watson says.
“This includes failing to inform the client during the case, failing to obtain the client’s consent, and failing to follow the client’s instructions,” Watson said. “Often, a simple follow-up or more attentiveness to the client could have prevented these claims.”
In short, effective communication is important. So how can lawyers communicate more effectively? How do they manage client expectations? How do they deliver bad news?
A panel of lawyers will discuss how to “Build Client Relationships Through Better Communication” at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s upcoming Annual Meeting & Conference, June 26-27 at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva.
As a preview, State Bar Legal Writer Joe Forward talked with several of the panelists to understand the importance of effective communication and the skills they employ to establish and maintain healthy attorney-client relationships throughout representation.
Set Boundaries and Expectations
Good communication upfront, in the initial stages, establishes a healthy foundation for a representation free of unexpected outcomes or dissatisfaction, says attorney Nathan Olson of Olson Legal Group LLC in Oshkosh. It keeps expectations in check.
Aside from clear discussions on fees and fee arrangements to ensure there are no financial surprises, Olson discusses when the client can expect communications, and ascertains how the client would like to receive them (email, phone, text, or postal mail).
Without setting this expectation, the client may be expecting daily calls or emails even when there’s nothing to report. Or, the attorney may sense the client wants consistent weekly updates regardless. In either case, both lawyer and client are on the same page.
“Once I have their mode of communication, I find it to be very easy to interact with my clients quickly and effectively,” Olson said. “I also take the time to make sure that my clients know exactly what is going on at all times and prepare them properly.”
Do You Have Any Tips for Better Communications With Clients?
Share them! Post a comment below.
“We've all had the experience of coming out of a hearing and our clients have ‘that look’ on their face. You know they have no idea what just happened in there. Above all, good communication creates happy clients and happy clients make for a better work day with increased productivity,” said Olson, a solo practitioner the last seven years.
And if it’s clear the client’s expectations cannot be managed, the attorney may be better off avoiding a commitment to the representation in the first place, Olson says.
“If the prospective client truly believes the matter is something that it is not, I don't hesitate to let them know that we're probably not the right fit for each other,” he said.
Upfront honesty is the best policy to help manage a potential client’s expectations, he says. Over-selling can be problematic. And as representation continues, reestablishing those expectations is important, he says. “Often times the client’s expectations change as ground is gained and lost during the litigation process,” he said.
Adjust Your Communication Approach
Clients differ. Depending on a lawyer’s practice area, the lawyer may consult a bank executive one day, and a commercial construction owner the next. Obviously, the way lawyers communicate with different clients must change to suit the situation.
When attorney Michael Rust started out, he worked for a firm that focused on corporate and real estate matters. His client base varied, and he had to change his communication style to ensure his diverse clients understood his message.
“I realized that my construction clients, gentlemen with 20 years of well-earned dirt under their fingernails, did not like having a ‘young-punk’ attorney, wearing a suit, in a fancy office telling him that he was not running his business the right way,” said Rust, now executive director of the Winnebago Conflict Resolution Center in Oshkosh.
“After some trial-and-error, I found that when communicating with this type of client, a few well-placed ‘four-letter words’ went a long way to gain credibility,” he said.
“That same color with bank vice presidents would likely have lost me a client, but with these gentlemen it had the opposite effect,” said Rust, noting that not all bank vice presidents, nor all construction workers, are the same. “Treating all the same within the stereotype is just as potentially dangerous as treating all clients the same,” he said.
But even if changing your communication style doesn’t seem to work, is there a way to refocus the client? First, Rust says, lawyers should refrain from lawyer-speak.
“If we have done our part to communicate well and the client is still not listening we have several options,” Rust said. “We can seek outside confirmation by a third-party, or ask questions of the client to better understand their position.”
In addition, Rust says lawyers can revisit the client’s ultimate goals. Even changing the location of the conversation may help the client better understand your points, he says. But if the client is not willing to hear the lawyer’s advice, there may be a problem.
“Lawyers advise and clients decide,” Rust noted. “But if the lawyer finds that their advice is not being heeded, ultimately the lawyer may need to part ways with the client.”
Help the Client Process Bad News
Unless you are Perry Mason, every lawyer has to deliver bad news at some point. Maybe the client has an average case that isn’t worth much. Maybe the investigation reveals the corporate client is probably at fault. Maybe the client just lost an appeal.
Dodgeville attorney Curtis Johnson says lawyers can mitigate the effects of bad news by preparing the client for the various possible outcomes. That is, Johnson makes sure to carefully run through the scenarios and alternatives that could affect the outcome.
“The first step in a case is to make sure that the client is aware that I in no way make promises as to an outcome of a case,” said Johnson, noting that he takes a similar tact in evaluating the value of a particular claim as it relates to the client’s situation.
“The best way to address the lessened value of a claim, in my opinion, is to have had the client attuned to the progress of the case in terms of developing facts and circumstances from the first day of retention,” said Johnson.
“This allows the client to process negative news easier because such news may be anticipated,” he said. “But communication also helps the client develop trust in their counsel while recognizing that some facts and circumstances are out of their hands.”
Johnson will review any information that has impacted the value or viability of a claim, such as a negative medical report, police statement, or other facts.
“It is important that I go through the material line-by-line so the client understands not only what the facts are, but also where they came from and how we can address the issue going forward,” said Johnson of Jackson Law Firm S.C. in Dodgeville.
For instance, Johnson’s practice includes criminal defense and civil and domestic litigation, including divorce and paternity matters. Receiving guardian ad litem (GAL) reports can be stressful and make or break a case, given the weight of GAL reports.
“When we receive a report that is counter to our goals, we revisit the initial priorities and see what can be salvaged,” he said. “We re-evaluate, reset, and move from there.”
Ultimately, Johnson says open and honest communication lines can mitigate the impact of traumatic or surprising news. Once the client has time to process bad news, Johnson helps the client move past it by focusing on potential solutions rather than dwelling on it.
Want More Tips on Effective Communication?
Attend “Building Client Relationships Through Better Communication: First Meeting, Difficult Conversations, and More,” on day two of the 2014 Annual Meeting and Conference (AMC), June 26-27 at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva.
To register or to view the schedule – packed with opportunities to learn, obtain CLE credits, socialize and network, and relax – visit the AMC webpage.