How to communicate better with your clients
Communication. Do we sometimes get it wrong with clients—or otherwise? I learned a valuable lesson early on in my legal career while still an articling student. My boss and good mentor, Hank, invited me to lunch. After the meal, I ordered a cup of tea. As I like it a certain strength, I said to the waiter, one Jean Pierre, “Bag out, please.”
The gentleman returned, and after putting the teapot and cup down, he took a spoon and removed the teabag that was floating around in the teapot. I reminded Jean Pierre that I asked for the bag out, and he seemed surprised, as indeed the bag was now out.
Hank smiled like the Cheshire cat. “You just learned a basic lesson in communicating,” he said. “Be as specific and clear as possible. We are not all wired the same. As long as this human condition persists, lawyers will be kept busy.”
I thought of the sage of all sages, Albert Einstein, who said on communicating, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
I believed I understood exactly how I wanted my cup of tea. I wanted to dip the teabag myself. But I did not say that. This little incident raised my articulation antennae going forward.
We are all certainly wired differently.
I had a motor vehicle case once where my client referred me to a key favorable witness, one Roger. Roger was one of my client’s close pub friends. I asked Roger whether he had consumed any alcoholic drinks prior to the accident. He replied, “Oh yeah. I had a few straight shots of scotch.”
After slapping my forehead a few times, I called my client to report this possible hurdle. The client insisted Roger’s drinking interlude occurred after the accident, not prior. Confused, I called Roger again and lo and behold, he told me he thought the word “prior” meant “after.”
Live and learn. I got the feeling Roger was never an active participant in contributing to the Wikipedia dictionary.
Too often, we lawyers talk to our clients in lawyer talk, presuming they understand us. I had a case in which I had to respond to a motion to dismiss any client’s action by summary judgment, i.e. without a trial, as the opposing lawyer thought our case had no merit. My client, Vlad, was a hard-nosed construction worker, and he expected kick-ass, no-nonsense service. Vlad originated from Eastern Europe, and his English was OK, but you had to take care not to overuse lawyerly language, otherwise you would lose him.
I met him in my office along with Harold, a newly called lawyer who was assisting me. Harold started explaining the motion to Vlad, but he did not size up our client at all. His discourse went something like, “Routinely a legal dispute results in a trier of fact determining the merits of the claim on viva voce evidence. However pursuant to Rule 21, subsections 1 to 3 of the Consolidated Rules of Practice and Procedure, a party may bring a motion to the court for a final order dispensing with a hearing of witnesses in persona and having the cause of action adjudicated upon via a summary ruling based on documentary presentation and argument …”
Vlad rolled his eyes and snapped impatiently at Harold, “Enough. Quiet! You talk too much—like voman.”
I thought it wise for me to take over the briefing. I asked Harold to let me continue, and meanwhile, to leave Vlad’s sight and get us some tea—at least he already knew how I liked my tea.
After the meeting, I had a little talk with Harold, a la Hank. I’m not confident he understood the lesson. A few days later he asked a client whether she owned her house in “fee simple.”
During my years of practice, I was always determined to make sure what was being said was being understood. I would use the simplest words—especially with clients—saying instead of “lessor,” “landlord”; instead of “affidavit,” “sworn document”; and instead of asking for a “retainer,” I asked for some money. Hey, clients understood that. And I never used the term “pro bono.” I did not want to chance giving the clients ideas.
I would always repeat the gist of my discussions and ask if they were understood. One client, a former army colonel, responded with an interesting phrase, namely “copy that.” He explained to me that it is used in the military to signify that the discussion is understood. I started using it too, but I soon dropped it, as too often I had to explain to my puzzled listeners what it meant. They rarely copied that.
A phrase I often heard to my delight was, “I got it.” Sometimes clients would use an elevated version, namely, “I totally got it.” I was satisfied with either version.
The colonel also explained to me another expression for acknowledging understanding and this was “Roger.” I did use this one more often, given my positive association of the word with that witness I mentioned, prior.
We also have to be careful with documentary communications with our clients. In addition to understanding the information, the client should also feel comfortable. Our standard wills read, “I give,” “devise” and “bequeath.” What’s wrong with just saying “I give” or “I leave”? Most clients hate getting their wills done to start with, and to me, the word “bequeath” sounds like death is very imminent. I’m sure those clients who know what it means likely leave their lawyer’s office looking over their shoulder. I doubt when they get to the intersection that they jaywalk.
We, lawyers, often shove documents in front of our clients asking them to sign them. I’ve noticed clients usually just trust the lawyer and don’t even read them. I never used those stickie strips saying, “Sign here.” I felt it put undue pressure on the clients. The stickies may as well read, “I’m Don Corleone. If you know what’s good for you, sign.”
I will add that Harold used to call clients in to “execute” documents. Harold taught me an important lesson: how not to communicate.
It was always my practice to ensure the clients knew what they were signing. When they signed a full and final release, I would reiterate and confirm that even if events changed down the road, that this was it; no further claims come hell or high water. It may sound obvious to lawyers. There have been no shortage of cases where clients’ injuries advance post-settlement, and they turn on their lawyer. (I have no idea what Harold is up to these days.)
As lawyers, we must be careful with our words. I reinforced Hank’s lesson by returning to that restaurant and saying to Jean Pierre, “One tea please. Just put it on the side, and I’ll dip it myself.” It worked.
Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book is Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit MarcelsHumour.com and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.