Many of the conversations we need to have with clients as lawyers involve awkwardness. We need to pry into details that most people who much prefer to keep private. We need to be satisfied of capacity to give instructions, continually check that the client understands what is happening, and confront the client with uncomfortable truths and legal advice – all without sounding like a patronising arse.
What are ways to lay down boundaries and explain why we are asking awkward questions that can maximise client rapport, instead of diminishing it?
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Everyone’s been there. The client is adamant about something, and the lawyer needs to break that delusion with a cold hard dose of reality. How do you balance maintaining authority and credence, while maintaining a good rapport?
This is hard, and something that I have learned the hard way. What I want to discuss in this blog post is the importance of balancing your professional duties to provide accurate and reasonable legal advice, with the rapport and relationship building between lawyer and client when the client adamantly refuses to accept your advice.
My examples will be from criminal practice, as that has been the bulk of my experience and the area where this has arisen most starkly.
Again, I reiterate: I am no expert. But these are the things I have learned, sometimes through training or collective observations in a team, and sometimes the hard way by making the mistake myself, and learning from it.
- Rapport with a client is important, but you are not their friend, you are their lawyer. Ensure the client always understands this distinction.
- Empowering the client to make an informed choice is a much better framework than “I am a lawyer and my way is right.”
- When a client starts showing resistance to sensible advice, you need to make a choice about how to proceed next, and file note the hell out of all of your discussions with the client!
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Communication is a Two Way Street
Communication entails a two way process: it means to transmit or impart knowledge via written or spoken words or non-verbal cues, and to “succeed in conveying information” and “evoking understanding” in the audience. Logically, speaking or writing without considering if the audience has understood the message to be imparted is not communicating, yet this is exactly what so many lawyers appear to do.
The expectation that clients are to have their case’s progress clearly communicated to them, in a manner that they understand, is a common principle in professional ethics and legal practice rules. In the same way that someone who is not a fan of football might be entirely lost in a description of the offside rule, it is useless when lawyers speak to their clients in waffle, or deliberately use terms that they should know the client does not understand.
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I am a lawyer, who was born and raised in Devonport, Punniilerpanner country, and now living and working in Melbourne, on Wurundjeri country.
I am passionate about plain language. It drives me up the wall that so many lawyers speak and write without thinking about how the terms they are using don’t actually make sense.
I hope to encourage lawyers and law students to think about the language they use, and improve their communication.