Why lawyers should never underestimate the importance of communication

Monday 21 March 2022

Oliver Künzler

Wenger Plattner, Küsnacht

Communication is an art rather than a science, and effective communication skills are essential to law practitioners. Writing letters of advice and emails, attending meetings, representing clients in court or briefing barristers – the list goes on. However, effective communication with clients isn’t something that most lawyers give much thought. And this trend starts in law school, where the focus tends to be on substantive law and legal theory. However, for many lawyers, adequate communication skills do not come naturally and must be learned.

Since so much of a lawyer's day is spent communicating, lawyers can’t afford to be poor communicators. This means lawyers must understand how to effectively convey a message while ensuring the recipient understands the intention and the purpose behind the message.

Effective communication is about how you say something, why you say it, when you say it, your body language and what you don't say. It is easy for individuals to have the illusion that they have communicated and set clear expectations, while the reality is much different.

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’
 George Bernard Shaw

There are two main reasons why lawyers need to be effective communicators: Effective communication saves you (and your clients) time and money and  improves client relationships.

If you are an effective communicator, you lower the risk of misunderstandings, both within your practice and with your clients and with your colleagues. Misunderstandings can be costly and sometimes expensive to solve – something you and your clients will want to avoid. Effective communication ensures everyone is aware of what is expected of them and what action they need to take.

You cannot underestimate how important trust is in the lawyer-client relationship. Communicating effectively with your clients means you foster greater trust in your abilities as a lawyer. This leads to improved client satisfaction and reduces the risk of complaints being made against you. A happy client is also a good source of repeat business and will likely give you good referrals.

Lawyers should consider the following aspects:

Communicate clearly, and often

It’s easy for things to get lost in translation, so making a deliberate effort to ensure your client understands what’s going on can go a long way towards avoiding unnecessary back-and-forth or misunderstandings.

Set expectations from the start

Setting clear expectations with your clients can help to frame their experience and avoid disappointment.

You’ll serve your clients best when you’re at your best, so setting availability expectations up-front is key to ensuring you can care for yourself while meeting your clients’ needs.

Invest in developing your interpersonal skills

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, particularly in high-stress and emotionally volatile matters such as divorce, bankruptcy or criminal defense.

Your law firm’s service is just as important as the legal results you provide. Your clients have legal needs, but they have emotional needs as well, and this applies to all practice areas.

Listen, listen, listen

You might think that client communication is about giving legal advice, but often, what clients really need is for you to listen. It happens too often that lawyers jump in and share their thoughts before they’ve truly understood the problem, which can leave clients feeling as if they’re not truly heard.

Know when to automate communications (and when not to)

In the digital age, automating tedious or repetitive processes can be a big win for law firms. However, when it comes to communication, it’s important to be thoughtful and ensure that automated communication is convenient for both you and your client. In general, simple and transactional communications are fine to automate, but more personal and specific communications are best left to humans.

Know which channels to use

Depending on which area of law you practice in, and what types of cases you handle, different communication channels may be more or less appropriate for different situations. Consider whether it’s best to deliver news, answer questions, or provide an update via phone, email, letter, text or another medium.

Invest in client communication training

Law firms should consider training to better understand and share how their lawyers should deal with clients. Sharpening interpersonal skills can be helpful for lawyers, but it’s also helpful for all law firm staff when communicating with clients.