Communication with Clients: How to Improve It ...

Sometimes legal clients can feel alienated from their lawyers because they don't know what's going on. In worst cases, clients feel their lawyer doesn't really understand or care about their cases.
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Being that lawyers are often very busy and have multiple clients to deal with, how can a lawyer overcome this alienation issue and continue to maintain an economically viable caseload?

What do clients expect of their lawyers?

The basic relationship between lawyer and client consists of a number of important client expectations. Clients expect lawyers to be an advisor, informing them about how the law would apply to the client's case, expressing the range of possible outcomes frankly and talking about the real range of possibilities regarding the outcome. Lawyers should be able to negotiate effectively, and regularly consult with and incorporate the client's stated wishes in negotiations. They are expected to apply expertise in the drafting of documents and advocate for their client, not for other parties.

Lawyers are expected to provide good service. This means the client expects phone calls to be returned the same day and useful communication to be kept up regularly. Lawyer's are expected to provide copies of important correspondence so clients feel abreast and in control of their case. They are expected to use time wisely and do their best within the confines of their practice. They're also expected to be a good listener and to empathise with the client's problem while addressing important questions that clients may be uncomfortable talking about.

What do clients think of their lawyers?

An analysis of 1,350 (one year's worth) of complaints about lawyers received by the Law Society of British Columbia found that 60 percent of complaints fall on the area of "quality of service" or "consumer satisfaction" problems. Serious complaints like lying, cheating, and stealing are "relatively rare." Though the study was not done in Australia, the lessons which can be learned apply to the practice as a whole. 

Specifically, clients complain most about unclear and infrequent communication. Some say that lawyers don't communicate in a language they can understand, but speak what clients call "legalese." Clients describe misunderstandings about expectations that are not made clear.They often complain that sometimes lawyers will arrange several meetings for a matter that could have been handled more simply. Sometimes clients fear that the lawyer's explanations of what they said in "legalese" are going to add to his or her expense, so they remain silent, without having clarity of what was said. Lawyers can accidentally diminish the importance and priority of their client's cases by telling the client that they are "swamped" and have so much to do with other clients. Clients want clear ideas about how long their cases are going to take, they do not want their cases to be bogged down endlessly without reason or explanation.

How to improve communication.

The analysis of client expectations about communication with their lawyers provides a clear road map toward improving communication.

  • Provide explanations of the process and possible outcomes in a clear language, making sure your client understands everything.
  • Consult your client about negotiations and work you do on his or her behalf.
  • Listen and empathise with your client's issues.
  • Don't use "legalese" without clear translation into the client's language.
  • Don't be afraid to delegate matters to skilled colleagues providing the client is informed and feels that you remain interested in the details of the case.
  • Keep clients informed about delays or complications which are going to affect your billable hours and the client's cost.
  • Make time for your client. Promptly return phone calls when the client calls you. Many lawyers establish turn-around times and stick to them.

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