The Link between Trust and Communication

January 04 2022 | 3 min read

Lawyers are generally regarded as less than trustworthy. And this in spite of our profession being obligated to act in a way that upholds public trust and confidence in our profession! 

What’s going on? And what can we do about it?

The key is communicating well.

The problem

An overwhelming percentage of lawyers work hard and are good negotiators and effective at argument. Because we focus so heavily on those parts of our jobs, we can spin out long, intricate and sometimes florid arguments, filled with Latin words. Legal terms of art and Latin phrases are fantastic tools when communicating with colleagues, judges, and opposing counsel. However, when it comes to client communication, those tools are useless. 

We need the skill set to speak in court and with other attorneys as we do, but because that type of communication is complex, confusing and intimidating for clients, we need to develop a parallel communication style.  How do we develop that other side? 

Resist the urge

Sometimes it’s easier to say it in legal jargon instead of plain English. But when plain English is just as useful for a client, use it. It may not be as precise, but if the full meaning is going to be lost, sacrifice precision for a practical understanding.  When you do use a technical term, be sure to define it multiple times. This will help your client to internalize the phrase. If the client uses the phrase in a complete thought, that is a positive sign of understanding. 

Remember the classic quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  I have marveled at true geniuses in various fields and their ability to make the complex simple. Becoming that kind of communicator in your practice makes your advice far more useful to your clients because they can leave your discussion better equipped to make great decisions. 

Thinking ReDesign

More and more lawyers are thinking about how we can work in a way that is more client-centered. But what does that really mean? In the her book Client Science, Marjorie Corman Aaron, a law professor, describes an episode in one of her law classes: after reviewing the law on a particular subject and applying it to set of facts, Professor Corman Aaron asked the student, “So how would you explain this to your client?” The student, knee-deep in the legal intricacies, said, “Who?” That comical scene demonstrates a pretty real point, and if you’re an attorney, I know you are not surprised by it. 

It is easy to get so caught up in our strategies and the law and its countless nuances, that we can forget who is on the receiving end of our work. A more client-centered practice means considering what your client’s experience is like, what he or she really needs to understand, and how to improve the experience to be a more positive, less intimidating one.

For example, as lawyers, we often explain to our users why we think something before we tell them what we actually think — especially if the user wants to hear something else. 

Sometimes we even force users to read through pages and pages before we get to the piece they really want to know – the answer. What we forget is that the answer, and its effect on the user, is pretty much all they care about.

So start with that, and then give some context. Here’s what it might look like. 

First, define the questions your client really wants the answers to, such as, 

  • Is it possible to do what I want to do?
  • Will I get in trouble because of it?
  • How much will this cost?
  • What else do I need to know (or don’t even know to ask)?

Obiter dictum.  I’ll wait while you look that up.  …See what happened there? Unless you happened to know what that means, now you’re distracted from the point because you needed to interpret the phrase.  What we really mean (in non-lawyer speak) is, here are some concluding (non-binding) comments. 

Your first thought when giving anything should always be what your client wants to know and how to enable them to leave your discussion better informed and better equipped than they were before that discussion. If you do this, then you can hardly go wrong.

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