The Great Illusion that is Communication

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The following post was originally published in the Australian Legal Practice Management Association Blog as part of the series "A survival guide for legal practice managers". Click here to view original post.    "The greatest enemy of communication is the illusion of it.” Pierre Martineau

Earlier this year, Jordan Furlong, a Canadian lawyer turned consultant, commented in a blog post that as lawyers, “we pay close attention to the nature and quality of the legal work we do, but we pay relatively little attention to how we deliver that work, how our services are received, and how the client feels about it.”

In an environment where the market for legal services per se is contracting, firms are cannibalising each other to get more work, our best people are regularly being poached by our competitors or other industries and new game changers are entering the market with ever increasing frequency, it seems odd that firms are still struggling with something as seemingly simple as communicating with their clients.

It is also somewhat ironic is it not, given that lawyers pride themselves as being amongst the worlds great orators and wordsmiths, that most client complaints (and for lawyers the majority of costs disputes) are in reality "communication misunderstandings”, much more so than complaints of technical incompetence? Particularly given (or some might argue because of?) the advances in technology and the variety of communication channels now available, theoretically there should be no reason (or excuses) for poor communication. There is a general perception that some professionals, despite being technically brilliant, are sometimes "bad" communicators. I prefer to believe that our problem might be we are communicating ineffectively.

We do communicate, but sometimes it is out of necessity or in order to adhere to rules and process (regulations of course govern how, when & what lawyers should communicate with their clients- presumerably because without such regulations we would not communicate at all ?) rather than because we have given consideration to the effect we wish to have or how our clients feel about a chosen communications approach.

Today more than ever before effective communication = effective service.

Of course, ‘effective’ will mean different things to different people, and below are a few examples suggested to us by clients of firms as to what they believe constitutes effective and ineffective communication by their lawyers.

1. "We want usable and relevant content - not something we have to decipher”

What might your client ultimately do with your advice?  You might enjoy drafting an 18 page advice, but if your client General Counsel needs your advice for a presentation or report to their Board or Executive, or to give a simple answer to their CEO, the last thing your client wants to do is spend their time or that of their team translating 'legalese’ or 'accountonian' into some kind of usable format. I know of one General Counsel who uses a particular external lawyer because they don’t use unnecessary legalese- instead they provide “user friendly” communication often including things such as charts, flow diagrams, decision trees and other visualisations. Another client recently told me they use a particular lawyer because they always use the phone to explain often complex advice-before asking whether he is required to send follow up written advice.

Another GC bemoaned the "lost art" of the phone conversation and pondered whether it is now replaced by emails, memos and lengthy advices because some external lawyers think they can charge more for those? Good lawyers do not make assumptions but instead always ask a new client what mode of communication they prefer and how regularly they would like it.

2. “Please understand what we value - if you don’t know, ask us”

Sorry, but all clients are not the same, do not have the same needs, values or requirements and as such- they should not be treated the same. We often make assumptions as to what clients want and need when really, the only way to understand what your clients actually value (what they see as important and what they don’t) is to have a conversation with them about it. Whether you ask them or not, every client will have their own expectations in relation to non technical aspects of what you provide, such as:

  • turnaround times and milestones,
  • accessibility and  responsiveness (if and when you- or anyone-will return their call or email them),
  • resourcing (who will I be working with? who’s names on the bill?), and
  • the total fees (how much is this going to cost me- not how are you going to charge me?).

Our ability to understand and manage these types of clients expectations will be the biggest factor in determining whether or not they perceive value in what we do- and if your client doesn’t understand (or agree with) the value you provide - whose fault is that?

It is best to discuss those expectations before the work is done rather than during or after, is it not?

Use your initial conversations with your client to discuss (not tell) with them how you will work together, and how you will manage and meet their expectations.

3. “Talk with us about price, and be open and honest from the outset - we don’t want surprises”  

Clients are increasingly saying they want some certainty around fees, would like more options and that they want to be sure their law firms will deliver on whatever promises they make - within budget. Doesn't sound unreasonable - does it?

Unfortunately, time and time again, clients relate experiences with firms that routinely under quote or underestimate (or over-service) without a word of warning or explanation (until they’re asked for one), and many still refuse to provide any form of price certainty (because “we don’t know how long this will take”). Rather than having open discussions about pricing up front and providing some certainty, many clients continue to suffer what professional firm consultant, Michelle Golden, calls the “bill and duck” approach. That is, firms invoice a client at the end of the month and then duck for cover hoping the client will pay it, or at least part of it.. eventually.

Clients increasingly prefer firms that scope the work, agree on prices (not estimates) and ensure they regularly communicate with them. If there is likely to be a change in scope, they want to know before the scope has changed-not afterwards. Sure sometimes we like little surprises, but only if they are good surprises (like birthday parties, lottery wins, sporting results). No one likes bad surprises-especially if a cost is associated with it.

If you get the scope and price out of the way early on and then you can concentrate on solving your clients needs. Danny Ertel, of Vantage Partners, puts it well when he says, “When firm partners and their clients set out to problem-solve, rather than posture about the size of the discount, they actually come up with some fairly clever arrangements.”

Finally even if we do communicate effectively, whether we get engagement & connection from that communication is another topic altogether.