Rita Gupta, director of Leiper Gupta Family Lawyers (LGFL Ltd) and accredited family law member, shares her advice for legal professionals on improving your professional communication style.
Are you still speaking “Greek” to your clients? Your family law clients have probably changed over the last decade, from passive recipients of legal wisdom to knowledgeable, active participants in their own cases. They are increasingly more commercially minded too, demanding to collaborate with you as their solicitor just as they would with any other professional service provider. Most of all, they want to have, and expect, value for money.
As legal professionals, we need to change our communication style and attitude accordingly, if we are to meet our clients’ legal requirements and exceed their expectations without confusing them.
The days of a lawyer sitting behind a desk and expecting a client to be in awe of them simply because of their qualifications are long gone. Your clients are far better informed due to the wealth of information available for free online. Indeed most will have already researched some options before they even walk through your door. Delivering advice to clients with an unnecessary level of legal language simply to try and justify the fees is not the best way to relate to your client!
What clients really want
Recent research undertaken by Chambers and Partners revealed that clients are looking for solicitors to be:
and of course
This list of attributes requires each of us to be an individual rather than just a representative of a law firm. A firm cannot be empathetic or personable; a real person can.
How to address clients
At our boutique law firm, we pre-screen all clients at initial enquiry. An important part of that screening is to establish how they wish to be addressed. This is double-checked over the phone, or in person by our staff on arrival, so that by the time I meet them, I know their personal preference. It seems really artificial to call somebody Mr Smith, for example, when we are discussing sensitive matters about their finances, their private life, their children and the breakdown of their relationship.
Equally, I always ask clients to use my first name. It may seem a small gesture but it bypasses a whole level of formality that neither the client nor ourselves have time for. Ultimately, it also saves the client money on small talk in meetings or emails, rather than focusing on the matters in hand.
My aim is always to remain approachable AND keep an appropriate level of professional distance. Personally, I cannot abide over-familiarity between clients and solicitors. That does not mean that you need to be unfriendly, especially if you are acting for someone you already know. All your communications need to support that professional relationship, and respect the boundaries between client and solicitor.
The words they are a changin’
New legislation often includes changes to long-established terminology that clients will have heard used in dramas such as “Eastenders”, as well as in outdated information on the web.
For example, the Children Act 1989 saw a major shift in terminology towards residence and contact orders, now replaced with ‘child arrangements’. However, contact, custody, and access are still the most widely used terms colloquially from clients. I can’t recall more than a handful of clients actually saying that they would like to apply for a Child Arrangements Order. It’s legal language that simply does not relate to their situation.
As their guide to the often-baffling world of law, we should appreciate where the client is coming from language-wise. Our job is to relate any new terminology to what they believe that to be. I always explain that a Child Arrangements Order is essentially dealing with custody and access or residence and contact arrangements, under one umbrella. It makes it easier to understand how just one phrase can cover so many important concerns for separating parents.
Do not ask Google
If your clients need to look up a term you have used in an email, letter, or even in person, you are simply not doing your job properly. We all know from bitter experience that if a client does look something up on Google, it often leads to issues and interpretation errors. Unraveling these errors takes time and energy away from more important aspects of their casework.
Any profession is prone to over-use of technical terms, from medical specialists to accountants. However, what the client actually wants is a simple explanation that is neither patronising nor lacking in essential details. We find that clients greatly respect our ability to break down often quite complex legal concepts in a way that is easy for them to digest. At the same, there are some legal terms that must be used, such as “Without Prejudice” or “Legal Privilege”.
Mind your language
Regardless of what changes are made in law, some clients will never get their heads around a Child Arrangements Order. It will always be about custody - and that’s fine. As an experienced solicitor, you will be able to gauge the level of your client’s understanding, and be able to adapt your level of detail from there.
If you are working with vulnerable clients, you need to break information down even further in a way that they can understand it and so they do not feel you are being condescending.
Break it down
I am a big fan of breaking things down to make it easier to act on information received. I create action points for the client with a clear set of instructions for them to follow as to what is required of them and of us. It ensures that as their case moves forward, they know in advance what will happen, what is required, and any expected outcome.
By adapting our language and approach to communications, no legal professional should even have a client feel like Shakespeare’s Casca: out of the loop and in the dark:
“Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” Julius Caesar: Act 1 Scene 2
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
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