Words and Phrases to Avoid When Communicating with Clients

The lawyer-client relationship is a partnership. The lawyer uses legal skills to help a client solve problems and the client cooperates by providing vital information and making decisions about the solution. The lawyer’s words and behavior profoundly affect the strength and value of the partnership from the perspective of the client. Clients do not think and feel about their matters as lawyer do. This disconnect can be the root cause of many problems prevented by avoiding comfortable, but unhelpful, words and phrases.

Communication between an attorney and client, like communication between any two people, is a complex, process of (1) perception of the other’s words and behavior, (2) decisions about what that means, and (3) decisions about what to say or do. What we perceive is limited by our own mental models, life-experiences, and feelings – physical and emotional. It’s easy for two people to share an experience, notice different aspects, reach different conclusions about its meaning and what to do. Amy Herman, in her book Visual Intelligence, explains how even our eyes can deceive us. Our perception mechanism is prone to mistakes.

Whether a prospective client becomes a client, a client becomes a repeat client, or a repeat client becomes a referral source may depend, in part, on your communication skills. Based on my consulting experience, poor communication is at the root of many troubles lawyers have with their clients.

If you want a prospective client to hire you or, at the end of a representation, to be your brand advocate, always think before you speak and speak to develop a trusting relationship. Think about the client experience: what needs to happen at each step and what you could say or do to kill or nurture a partnership. At each point in the client experience, there are words and phrases to avoid.

No Professional Relationship

Avoid:

“I’m a lawyer, working in ABC law firm. We have offices all over the world and can handle any sort of legal problem. My specialty is …”

People are people before they are clients. Tradition tells us that when you meet a stranger, give them your “elevator pitch.” If you go on and on about your practice, your droning will cause this stranger to stop listening. Instead, use a short introduction and then ask the stranger about themselves.

Prospective Client

Avoid:

“I can help you with that problem. This is how I would approach it.” OR

“Where is your business located? How many people do you employ? How long have you been in business? …”

When one realizes the person needs a lawyer, many lawyers immediately talk about their expertise and experience, advocating for their hire. Alternatively, they spend too much time asking basic situation questions.

The best way to turn a prospective client into a client is by asking questions about their problem. Getting the prospect to talk about problems demonstrates that you care and are listening. It also makes problems feel more acute. After surfacing a problem, ask about the consequences of not addressing it. Then ask about the benefit of solving it. After you have gotten prospects to talk about the benefits of solving the problem, you can ask them how they would feel were the solution standing next to them.

Intake

Avoid:

“You’re going to win this case.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll handling everything.”

When the prospect is ready to become a client, the relationship should be formalised. What you say should be aligned with what you write in the formal agreement and required by your ethics rules.

The formal agreement should clearly define the scope of your relationship with the client. This limits future claims from the client that go beyond the boundaries in your mind. Be clear about the scope of work you will perform, what you charge for, when you expect to be paid, whether interest will be charged for unpaid amounts due, and what will happen if the client continues to not pay. Guide expectations before, during, and at the end of an engagement to avoid subsequent surprises.

Working Relationship

Avoid:

“…..”

Legal jargon

Silence is among the bigger problems that get lawyers into trouble. Clients expect to be kept informed, even when there is no new information. Return calls and emails within 24 hours. Communicate with clients at least every 6 weeks with a status update and to ask how they are. Use an out-of-office email notice when there may be a delay in returning a client’s call. When clients’ expectations are met, it’s easier to manage the relationship and create a positive experience.

When a person enters a profession, part of the socialisation is learning and sharing the jargon. Use of jargon is a boundary builder. It binds together people while excluding others. When you use jargon with your clients, the boundary is sharpened and the partnership weakened.

Close Matter

Avoid:

“Your final bill is…”

Naturally, your client needs to know what they owe you, but they need to hear, “thank you” and you need feedback. You can learn from criticisms and complements. Ask how often they would like you to keep in touch and their preferred medium of connection.

A robust and rich attorney-client partnership is created by managing expectations at every step of the client experience. Remember, what you say, may not be what your client hears.

Jurisdictions: 

Susan Letterman White, JD, MS works with lawyers and law firms to improve leadership, organizational and team performance, and marketing and business development, through strategy planning, training, group facilitation, and executive coaching. She is a Practice Advisor at Massachusetts LCL/LOMAP, an adjunct professor at Northeastern

University, where she teaches leadership, strategic change, and communication skills, and the principal consultant at Letterman White Consulting. Susan practiced employment law for more than 20 years and was the managing partner of a law firm. She received a Master’s in Organization Development with Academic Distinction from American University, a JD from Loyola Law School, and a BA in Philosophy from Brandeis University.