man and woman in conversation in front of a window

"The most effective way to communicate with a client, is to communicate with the client."

Vladislav Zabrodin
Managing Partner
Capital Legal Services
Balkan Legal Forum (Vienna, Austria, 28 June 2016)


Vlad Zabrodin's insightful observation at this year's Balkan Legal Forum points out a persistent challenge in the communications practices of many lawyers and in the culture of many otherwise well-managed law firms. We talk at clients, but often fail to listen to them.

I hear others in the legal profession saying similar things:

  • We assume that we are communicating with clients, and with each other, but we actually undermine our best intentions.
  • We tell each other "We are in a people business."
  • We say, "Our survival depends on our ability to deliver legal services in a way that our clients will perceive as valuable."
  • We say, "Legal competence is only the price of admission; it will not differentiate us from the competition."
  • We know from experience that our client relationships will work well only when there is a reciprocal dynamic of transparency, integrity, and trust between people.

Yet, even with a high commitment to client service, lawyers frequently fail to communicate with clients and each other as effectively as they could.They neglect to expand their own "people skills." They hope that leadership capabilities will develop ad hoc as their firms grow and evolve. Despite their best intentions, real communication -- the type that Vladislav Zabrodin envisions -- becomes the exception rather than the norm.

I have observed five characteristics in lawyers – and in the culture of law firms –that seem to interfere with our ability to do more of what we say we want to do, i.e., to communicate effectively. What are these characteristics?

1. Quickness to judge
2. Asking questions only when one already has an answer
3. A short-range view of success
4. Restricted intellectual vision
5. Conflict avoidance

These tendencies are driven as much by the nature of legal work and client expectations as by individual lawyer personalities. If they are turned around, they can be tremendous assets – real tools in a sophisticated communication strategy that differentiates your people and your firm. To what extent do each of these five factors describe you; and how do they affect your capacity to really communicate with your clients?

1. Quickness to judge

Lawyers are busy professionals with keen minds and tremendous demands on their time and energy. They are paid to provide legal expertise, and sometimes even business advice. They tend to have a high level of self-confidence in their ability to provide this expertise and an equally high sense of urgency to get to the point and resolve matters efficiently. Their commitment to client service is generally without question.

So, what's the problem?

Client communication, at more than just a superficial level, is a complex interpersonal dynamic that challenges the patience of any busy professional.

When a client complains about a bill, we might immediately think, "She has no idea how hard we worked on this matter! She doesn't even appreciate what we achieved for her!" We might blame ourselves, or someone else, for an oversight. Or, we may resent having to deal with the situation. These thoughts quite naturally contribute to feelings of impatience, frustration, even anger.

At this point, if we react without pausing to think first about the best response, we may be perceived as condescending and abrupt, even if we don't intend to be. Our body language and tone of voice convey far more information to the client than the words we use in a tense situation. Or, we may turn our frustration inward, complying with the client's request but resenting it. Turning feelings inward as a matter of habit can lead to responding disproportionately later on to unrelated situations. Turning feelings inward tires us out and often increases feelings of moodiness and hypersensitivity to others' slights.

Our tendency to be "quick to judge" another person's ideas, opinions, circumstances, or behavior based only on our "evidence" can lead to potentially inaccurate conclusions. It's often a defensive reaction. We tend to blame others, or even ourselves, instead of trying to understand better where our thoughts and feelings are coming from and how the client sees a situation. If we don't stop to pause before reacting, we are very likely to behave in ways that make others feel bad and that are not useful to the situation and the relationship.

Can we assume that a client has the same likes and dislikes, professional experiences, and ways of thinking that we do? Our actions – based on our own logical analysis and well justified emotions – may seem perfectly reasonable to us, when, in fact, our response may seem confusing, arrogant, and unhelpful from the client's perspective. In such a case, does it really matter if we still hold that we are "right?"

It's not that we don't have the personal right to "judge." The key to effectiveness is to be able to pause to mentally recognize our thoughts and emotions BEFORE we act, so that we can choose the behavior that will help us achieve the best results, for ourselves and our clients.

2. Asking questions only when one already has an answer

"Never ask a question to which you do not already know the answer." This is one of the cardinal rules of trial advocacy.

Lawyers generally hate surprises! When they are collecting and analyzing the facts of a matter or preparing a witness for trial, lawyers want to be precise, thorough, and accurate. Through rigorous legal training and experience, not knowing what to expect becomes mentally linked with the concept of risk, the risk of being wrong, the risk of looking unprepared, the risk of feeling or looking stupid in the clients' eyes.

Really communicating with clients requires taking calculated risks. We may not know how the clients will respond, how they will feel, or what they will say. However, we can skillfully manage these risks of the unknown by understanding more about the personality of the client and having confidence in our own skills in dealing with the human side of our business and legal transactions.

Outside of the courtroom, lawyers generally ask questions of clients that pertain to their technical work and the legal matters at hand. Although they may engage in some "chit chat" with clients, the primary motivation for lawyers to ask questions is to do their job.

It is helpful for lawyers to adapt their mind-set about asking questions to the objectives of the discussion. Asking questions of clients at specific phases of business development and selling have a very different purpose than asking questions to test a legal opinion. Necessarily, the types of questions – and the way questions are asked - are different, too.

When lawyers want to expand a business relationship or get work for the first time from a potential client, their primary purpose in asking questions is to build rapport; to understand as much as possible about the client's business, priorities, and concerns; and to invite the client to raise objections so they can deal with them in order to finally ask for the business. In general, they want the client to be as mentally engaged with them as possible, both at the personal and business levels.

In this complex process, asking questions becomes both an art and a science. Asking questions is not a single skill but an actual communication strategy. The lawyer is guiding the discussion mainly in response to the client's expressed interests, needs and preferences. If lawyers are willing to really listen to the answers, they actually have more "control" over the discussion and its results than they would have if they were doing all of the talking.

Transparency also is important in asking questions. In a business development or client feedback discussion, the purpose is totally different than questioning a witness. Most clients will know if you really want to learn from them, or if you are just going through the motions. In addition, they will quickly become defensive if they feel that you are asking questions to "trap" them or to try to "lead" their thinking.

When lawyers are honest about their intentions and expectations, clients and potential clients will generally respond favorably to questions. Asking questions poses fewer risks than assuming that you know everything already about the situation or relationship. Facilitating an open-ended discussion is not necessary in every transaction with a client. It is necessary under certain circumstances though if you want to build a strong and trusting relationship over time – one that secures client loyalty and cooperation.

3.  A short-range view of success

Time is money, and lawyers, like other business people, often resist investing time and effort in relationships that do not guarantee a quick business payback. We see this mentality frequently displayed in law firm partners who prefer to record 1,800, 1,900 or more billable hours each year, in order to earn fees now, rather than devote some of that time to business development, client relations, and the professional development of others in the firm – all of which have been demonstrated to produce much greater financial returns long-term.

Such a short-range view is especially toxic in professional services, where one of the most important business skills of all is to forge long-term, productive relationships with clients who trust us. Short-range thinking – the frequently subconscious obsession to produce results and improve the bottom line now – blocks the level of genuinely interactive communication that is one of the foundations of trust between lawyer and client.

What do clients want from their relationships with lawyers and law firms? The results of surveys and interviews that we have conducted for law firms over the past 20 years consistently echo two aspects that are important to clients: a lawyer who is committed to the client's success; and a lawyer who understands the client's business. When we ask these clients for examples of specific actions that demonstrate these two values, the most frequent one we hear is "my lawyer really listens to me and asks good questions." Both of these elements require an investment of time that may not demonstrate an immediate return.

4.  Restricted intellectual vision

Anyone can suffer from intellectual "tunnel vision," but, based on my observations of lawyers over the past three decades, it might be more prevalent among lawyers than most professions. The disciplines of logic and relevance, so critical to successful analysis of a legal issue, can cause lawyers to adopt a strict, linear approach to their communications with clients, as well as with each other. This makes other options and opportunities invisible.

Rather than trying to observe and understand a client's matter as a system of influences and dynamics,lawyers often focus intently on getting from "Point A" to "Point B." Such a restrictive communications paradigm actually can cause a lawyer to fail to perceive and ask about something that is important to the client, and possibly critical to the successful resolution of the client's matter.

To be sure, most lawyers eventually collect all the relevant facts, interests, goals, and concerns of the client; but a failure to look for, ask about, and consider the whole system of these factors will make the process unnecessarily inefficient, slowing the development of trust and confidence between the lawyer and the client, rather than building it.

This also explains in part why many lawyers and law firms don't cross-sell very well. They can miss excellent business opportunities outside their narrow frames of reference.

5.   Conflict avoidance

The successful resolution of legal issues – a daily occurrence for most lawyers – requires some degree of conflict, with which lawyers are usually quite comfortable.

Lawyers regularly tell me that they are less comfortable and less skilled in dealing with clients who are complaining, who are argumentative and who have unrealistic expectations and demands. Wary of damaging good will and trust, they often cite the fear of damaging the relationship as the reason for not dealing assertively and candidly with "sensitive" situations. However, real – as opposed to superficial – communication is what builds strong relationships.

If lawyers tend to avoid sensitive issues in discussions with clients, they are likely to do the same with their partners. In both cases, conflict avoidance can become a bad habit. Waiting for the "right" moment to talk about an issue, one that never seems to come, or hoping a problem will magically disappear are recipes for disaster in client relationships. The quality and pace of partner decisions and effective performance management in any firm are clear indications of how openly and effectively they deal with their internal differences.

No one likes having disagreements, regardless of their national culture. We often have had bad experiences that we don't want to repeat. However, if we hide behind false collegiality, particularly to avoid our own discomfort, we inevitably weaken relationships. Unexpressed views and unresolved areas of tension will continue to cause distractions. Eventually these distractions lead to misunderstandings and poor results. Trust erodes over time and real communication becomes virtually impossible.

In any culture, if we choose to ignore emotional undercurrents or the emotional "subtext" in an interaction with a client, the results will suffer. We might feel that we completed our business objectives efficiently, particularly if the client complies with our wishes. Usually we have received only a temporary reprieve, at best. Real needs or concerns may have gone unspoken and we may lose an opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding, expand a business relationship, acquire a new client, or manage an unseen risk.

When clients feel that they have been sufficiently "heard," they will be able to listen more objectively. This more relaxed state of mind will encourage them to be more open-minded and less resistant and defensive. Under these conditions we have far more influence with client "buying" decisions and follow-through on our advice than if we just pushed our business agenda forward, ignoring or avoiding potential conflict at the "personal" level of the interaction.

Clients remain loyal when they are confident the partners and the firm will be responsive to their business concerns, questions, feedback, and objections. They expect more than problem solving though. They want to see evidence that the firm is getting to the root cause of problems. They want to see evidence that the firm is prepared not just to chase problems but to actually anticipate potential legal needs, challenges and opportunities for the client.

Partners and firms can't achieve these client expectations without deeper communication, internally, with each other. The sharing of views and ideas, selecting strategic priorities, planning and implementing goals, making financial decisions, discussing performance – all of these processes in law firms naturally – and necessarily – involve some element of differentiation and disagreement. That is what gets everyone to the most informed priorities and the best results. Accepting the differences, isn't agreeing with them. Accepting that everyone is likely to see things somewhat differently gets partners to focus more on what they have in common than the differences – sometimes very small in comparison – that seem to divide them. Simply put, conflict avoidance puts all relationships at risk.

What is your comfort zone?

Without even realizing it, many lawyers resort to their own communication comfort zones. They rely on fact-finding, communicating policy, analyzing the pro's and con's of a course of action, anticipating legal consequences, and other technical, rational responses to address client questions and issues. This may not be everything, or even what the client needs. The client may need to vent about her business worries. She may need asusrance about her chosen course of action or empathy from the lawyer about the business challenges she will face.

Do you know if your clients are anxious about something that you haven't addressed yet? Are they withholding information? Why do they seem to be procrastinating? Do they feel that you actually care about and understand their concerns, business and legal? What can your firm do differently and better in addressing current needs and evolving business expectations?

These are relevant questions that in order to answer, most lawyers will need to move outside of their comfort zones. The communication skills needed to expertly deal with others' perceptions, disagreements, expectations, objections and concerns are skills that lawyers do not typically learn in law school.

Real communication with clients

Real communication with clients -- the type that Vladislav referenced in his presentation in Vienna -- can be learned and relearned with practice and feedback from others. It means turning potential communications flaws into professional strengths. Only then can we draw on them as tools in our communication strategy with clients and in responding to leadership challenges.

Developing lawyers take their cues from the top – responding based on what partners do, not what they say. Internally, when partners don't model and coach effective business development and conflict management skills, developing lawyers pick up bad habits, repress their thoughts and feelings, and don't acquire important leadership skills that they need for real communication with clients.

The practice of law revolves around people serving people. What is the cumulative impact of the hundreds, if not thousands, of client transactions taking place in the daily life of your firm?

  • Do clients notice and comment on the high quality of interpersonal skills that your partners, lawyers and staff consistently demonstrate?
  • Do your lawyers and staff feel stifled and stressed or supported and energized?
  • Is your firm culture one that motivates, teaches and reinforces the value of really communicating with clients?
  • Do you know how to take your client communication strategy to the next level?

If you want to know more about how to make sure your law firm is not just communicating at clients but really communicating with clients, please contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Lisa Walker Johnson