Communication Skills

Over the course of our lives we develop a communication toolkit:

  • we learn to appreciate the effect that tone and content have on meaning and how our communications are received;
  • we learn to appreciate silence and non-verbal communication;
  • we develop fluency with written communication; and
  • we understand the rules that govern communication in our society, including distinguishing communications that are considered acceptable from communications that fall below the societal norm.

Lawyers provide information services, and effective communication skills are a hallmark of good lawyers. Because lawyers have sworn a professional oath, they are expected to communicate at a higher standard than members of the general population.

Many of the complaints the Law Society receives could have been avoided (or dismissed) if the lawyer complained of:

  1. listened to his or her client in order to understand the client’s needs, and determine at the outset whether the client was a good match for the lawyer’s experience, skillset, personality and style of practice;
  2. advised the client (in realistic and clear terms) of potential outcomes, and the cost associated with the legal services;
  3. told the client what the lawyer would do, and would not do, and kept his or her word;
  4. established an understanding with the client regarding future communications between them (both the preferred method of communication and the lawyer’s process for responding to communications in a timely fashion);
  5. confirmed his or her understanding of the existence and scope of the retainer using a written retainer, or if not retained, by sending a non-engagement letter;
  6. kept the client informed of progress on the file, even if only to explain why matters have been delayed or are in a holding pattern;
  7. responded promptly to communications from his or her client as agreed, other lawyers, the Law Society, and other interested parties;
  8. ensured that the tone of every communication was civil and that their content was limited to relevant matters;
  9. avoided delay in billing and ensured that bills were fully explained; and
  10. managed his or her client’s expectations.

You can create a toxic miscommunication by keeping your client in the dark or by ignoring communications from the lawyer on the other side of the file, and by failing to respond to communications from the Law Society arising from a complaint (perhaps complaints from both the client and the other lawyer). The situation may be toxic when you are uncivil in your communications, and more damaging when your lack of professionalism transgresses the boundary between potentially causing harm and actually causing harm (e.g. leaving a client with a claim that is statute-barred). From the perspective of the Law Society, none of these transgressions are acceptable.

In addition to the professional imperative to communicate effectively, there is also a practical need to do so. Lawyers are subject to numerous stereotypes, many of them negative. Consequently, few people approach a lawyer without a set of assumptions and perceptions already in place. Poor or disrespectful communication skills diminish your standing within the profession and reinforce the public’s negative perception of the entire profession. There is no practical benefit to such behavior, and the harm associated with it is very real. The best opportunity you have to overcome negative perceptions is to adhere to a high standard of conduct and communication.

The BC Code, Canon 2.1-5, provides that every lawyer should assist in maintaining the honour and integrity of the legal profession. The lawyer has duties such as to promote the interests of the state, serve the cause of justice, maintain the authority and dignity of the Courts, be faithfull to clients, be candid and courteous in relation to other lawyers and demonstrate personal integrity.

Community Discussion

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From my background, as managing partner of our firm for 27 years, I would add that that the lawyer's style of communication, is an essential part of developing with the client a relationship which is respectful (on both sides) and built on mutual trust. Your body language is important as well, you can't, during your meeting, be distracted by telephone calls, casting glances at your cell phone or your email.

I am glad they put listening first. My experience is that most lawyer are great at talking, not always so great at listening. Acknowledging the clients emotions as completely understandable in the circumstances goes a long way toward building trust. 

The demands of practice can impose onerous pressures [e.g. time/$] that may impede clear/concise solicitor/client communications which these practice points identify and should serve as ongoing reminders  that client expectations must be kept realistic.

Operating as a sole practicioner is onerous and kind reminders of effective communication can aid a lawyer in his or her practice.  Knowing your client is effective i.e. if there are cultural differences as it aids in clarity of communication. A clients nod of the head does not necesarily mean they agree or understand you. 

A lot of this comes down to organization as well. Systems need to be in place to ensure that clients are signing retainer letters, that those letters contain the necessary terms, and that expectations are properly managed (such as routine file reviews with a quick email to the client to check in).

I don't charge for time on the phone as clients are then afraid to call.  Not calling may result in a little problem becoming a bigger problem.

One thing I have often said to clients when they first retain me:  "I am a human being, and I make mistakes.  If I make a mistake, and become aware of it, you should expect to hear about it from me first."

Of course, you must follow up.  All that requires is acting professionally.

The strange part about this is that it tends to increase your credibility with the client.