10 tips: lawyer-client communication – Hull on Estates #240
Listen to: 10 tips: lawyer-client communication
This week on Hull on Estates and Succession Planning, Paul Trudelle and Sharon Davis give insight into 10 tips for successful lawyer-client communication.
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10 tips: lawyer-client communication – Hull on Estates- Episode #240
Posted on March 1, 2011 by Hull & Hull LLP
Paul Trudelle: Hello and welcome to Hull on Estates. You’re listening to episode #240 on Tuesday, March 1st.
Welcome to Hull on Estates, a series of podcasts for the Canadian legal community dealing with issues and insights surrounding estate planning in Canada. Hosted by the lawyers of Hull & Hull, the podcast will touch on some key considerations when planning estates and wills. Now, here are today’s hosts.
Sharon Davis: Hi and welcome to another episode of Hull on Estates. I’m Sharon Davis.
Paul Trudelle: And I’m Paul Trudelle.
Sharon Davis: If you want to be heard on Hull on Estates, you can participate by leaving us a comment. Email us at email@example.com or you can visit our blog at estatelaw.hullandhull.com.
Paul Trudelle: How are you, Sharon?
Sharon Davis: I’m very well, thanks, Paul. And you?
Paul Trudelle: Very good, and welcome to March.
Sharon Davis: We are there, aren’t we?
Paul Trudelle: We’re there.
Sharon Davis: It’s hard to believe.
Paul Trudelle: We’re over the hump.
Sharon Davis: Spring.
Paul Trudelle: Winter is short now.
Sharon Davis: I thought perhaps today we might discuss an interesting Continuing Legal Education program that I attended recently. It was held by the Law Society of Upper Canada and it was called ‘Defining Issues and Strategies with Litigation Clients’.
Paul Trudelle: Yeah, you told me a bit about that and I thought it would be well worth discussing. I understand the presentation was to an audience of lawyers and how to deal with litigation clients. So I thought maybe we’d look at what you’d discussed there and see how that might apply to clients dealing with lawyers, which for probably what may be the first time. So that might…the insight that the lawyers were given and what they were told to bring to the table when dealing with clients for the first time in a new litigation matter might help clients understand what the process is and what lawyers are looking for when they first meet with their clients.
Sharon Davis: Exactly. All of that really does contribute to an effective, you know, client meeting and a client relationship because you’re forming the basis for that as you go along. What I thought was interesting about this particular CPD as well is that it wasn’t attended by just new lawyers. It wasn’t something where I know we have this ethics and practice management emphasis now and it wasn’t just new lawyers. It was really a variety of practitioners from all different levels. So it was really nice to get that sense of, you know, what different people do in different instances and to have the benefit of the experience of people of different levels.
Paul Trudelle: Right and it seems like a really good reminder as to how you should approach the first meeting and what you should be bringing to that meeting. So the paper that we’re gonna talk about is a paper prepared by Kimberly Morris and it deals with the initial communications with your client and sets out 10 tips for success, so we should thank her for preparing that paper.
Sharon Davis: That’s right. And we want to give credit where it’s due because Jane Southren of Lerners actually did deliver the paper and so it was a bit of a combined effort in that respect.
Paul Trudelle: That’s great. So what was the first tip that they gave you when dealing with a new client?
Sharon Davis: Well I like this tip. Tip #1 is know yourself. I think it’s true in every aspect of life, for sure. You really have to know how do you like to communicate and what is the client’s preferred method of communication as well because communication again is a two-way street and it has to be something that works for both. And I don’t know about you, Paul, but I’ve certainly found that some people are very email proficient and they really enjoy using email. It’s a very efficient way to get a hold of them. Other people would just rather you pick up the phone and talk to them and you’re not gonna get the same response if it’s by email if they’re really not so inclined.
Paul Trudelle: Right and I think the opening…the initial first couple of dates, let’s call them, with the client are very important. You need to get a lot of information if you’re the lawyer. And as the client you need to give a lot of information and at the same time, the lawyer has to give a lot of information about the process and what next steps are and what the chances for success are. So there’s a great deal of communication and information that needs to be obtained and given and knowing how best to do that with your particular skill set and with the client’s particular needs and desires is very important.
Sharon Davis: That’s right. And so tip #2 is be organized. So know what you want to accomplish in the first communications with the client. Practical matters. How long do you want the initial meeting to be? Do you want them to sign a retainer agreement? Do you want to follow…schedule a follow-up meeting which would include giving your client homework? Some clients like homework; some don’t like homework so actually that’s a bit of a negative connotation sometimes. But you have to have a plan, I think, and that way once you’re consistent and you’re setting that out for your client in an organized manner, they’ll understand what to expect from you going forward as well.
Paul Trudelle: Right and I think being organized is important for the lawyer going into the meeting, but also for the client as well. Have a schedule or a chart of the important dates, the important players. Have the important documents that you need and in our context, you know, the Wills, Powers of Attorney, any other letters like that that are relevant. Have those available at the first meeting so you’re not fumbling to get them, you’re not needing to follow-up at a later date. So if you have all of that and you’re organized going into the meeting, both from the client side and the lawyer’s side, I think it’s a much more productive start to the relationship.
Sharon Davis: Absolutely. And I think clients sometimes do get into the emotion of what’s going on with them, and rightfully so and understandably so. But sometimes it’s difficult to get all of the information that you do need. They don’t recall all the particular dates. I mean, the details…the devil’s in the details but, you know, so are the lawyer’s, I guess, because it really is important to us to know all of that. And I always find it helpful, some clients will come armed with a whole chronology.
Paul Trudelle: A chronology is always very helpful and it helps…it gives us a script to follow as to what’s happening. One of the points in the paper is that clients often stray into elements of the story that are not relevant and it’s important for the lawyer to keep the client on track. However, having said that, at the first meeting you’re not always aware as…either the client or the lawyer…as to what is entirely relevant. So you want to get all of the story or the entire fact background as fulsome as possible while still keeping it to the relevant issues. And it’s important for the lawyer to try to do that and for the client as well.
Sharon Davis: Tip 3 is to be clear. And I think this really does help with clients. If they understand what you will charge, you know, how the matter is going to unfold, what are the precipitating events and how…what they can look forward to as they go forward. I think communicating all of this is really important. And you have to make sure they do understand what you expect from them. It’s not as though they can hand it over to you and then you’ll let them know at the end when they get all their money and send them the cheque. It doesn’t quite work that way.
Paul Trudelle: That’s right. I think it’s very important to be clear from the client’s point of view as to what the expectations are, what can be achieved and what can’t be achieved and how you’re going to get there and what the steps are along the way, so that there are no surprises or as few as possible as the matter unfolds.
Sharon Davis: And it may be that some of these things would be set out in a retainer. You may give that retainer at your first meeting. You might want to send them away with the retainer to read it and understand it before they sign it. You might want to explain it to them, you know, while they’re in the room with you. But all of these things will aid setting up what exactly it is that they can expect going forward. I always find that basically clients will judge you by whatever you promise as a minimum expectation, so you know, you don’t really want to set their expectations in an area where you really can’t fulfill them. Now tip #4 is be knowledgeable.
Paul Trudelle: And I think the thrust of that point is to not get into areas of law that you’re not familiar with. If you’re not a…if you don’t practice a certain area of law, then don’t start there. Send the client off to a lawyer who will be better able to help the client in that particular area.
Sharon Davis: Tip #5 is be cautious, and I guess I’ve kind of touched on this but promising and delivering. Focus on under-promising and over-delivering. And again, I think client satisfaction is completely tied to this. And if you say you’re going to achieve something, again they’re going to expect that’s the minimum you’re going to achieve. They’re not going to expect that that is, you know, the best you’re going to do. And so ultimately, if you want a happy client at the end of the day, managing their expectations is very important. We hear a lot about that but it’s important for clients to understand that as well. We can only know so much about how a case is going to unfold.
Paul Trudelle: Right and as a client going in to see a new lawyer for the first time, I don’t think you should be looking for a cheerleader or someone who’s going to be telling you that you have a no-lose case. You want someone who’s gonna give you a realistic view of the case and make sure that your expectations are in line with the realities of the circumstances.
Sharon Davis: That’s right. Tip #6 is be a good listener. Now this one really is important because sometimes again, you know, when clients stray all around, you really do have to be able to understand what the issues are and to be able to ask the right questions. This is your client’s dispute and not yours and so it really is your job to listen and ask the follow-up questions that will elicit all of the relevant facts.
Paul Trudelle: Right and I think that sometimes the clients come in not knowing what the relevant facts are and you need to be able to listen to what they’re saying and probe deeper into certain areas to make sure that you’re getting what is relevant to the matter in issue based on the area of law that you’re dealing with.
Sharon Davis: Now here’s the challenge. Tip #7 is be a good note taker. So you have to do that while you’re being a good listener and sometimes that can be a little bit difficult to do. And I know sometimes you might have, you know, part of setting up what the team is, you might have an associate or a student or whoever’s going to be assisting on the file. Perhaps you might want to introduce them at that particular point at the very first meeting. And then you’ve got the ability to have someone taking thorough notes. You’ve got the ability to have the client be comfortable with that person and the team, and still be a good listener at the very same time.
Paul Trudelle: Yeah, so you’re a good listener, you’re taking notes and I think those notes are very important because a lot of information is on the table at that first meeting. And it’s important that the lawyer be able to get all of that down and pull it back when necessary. The next point is to ask questions. When you’re listening to the story, you need to ask questions in order to get out relevant information or information that the client may not feel is necessary or relevant, which may have some relevance in your experience. And also just to get a little bit deeper and to sort of focus the conversation as well.
Sharon Davis: You have to ask the tough questions too. And as you were saying, you’re not just a cheerleader. Sometimes what you’re doing is advising someone on how to manage a bad situation and the fact is that you can’t tell them everything they want to hear because that simply isn’t, you know, the state of the law as it applies to their facts. And that’s unfortunate but they need to know that and that’s a lawyer’s job as well.
Paul Trudelle: Yeah, and I think the questions to get the helpful evidence are important but also the evidence that may not be so helpful, so that you know what’s coming and you can advise how to deal with those facts that may not be just the way you like them. The next point is to get the relevant documents. In an estate matter, the Will is obviously a very important document. Other notes and letters, correspondence can be very important and it’s always a good idea for the client to come to the meeting with those or I sometimes ask that they get sent beforehand so that we have a chance to look at what the underlying documents are before that meeting.
Sharon Davis: The last tip is to be candid. And while we’ve touched on the fact that you have to give them, you know, the straight goods on what their chances are, sometimes these things can change over the progress of a matter. And so you may think, you know, things are looking pretty bright in the beginning and something happens or a fact comes to light and that changes. And you really do have to be very candid about that. You know, if you think the dispute can be solved with a telephone call to the other side, you know, then you tell the client and you go that route. On the other hand, you know, if you think that this could go on for years and years, many clients are very surprised to know or to find out that litigation can go on for years. They seem to think that once they come to a lawyer, it’s gonna be settled ASAP.
Paul Trudelle: Right. No, it’s important to know the potential outcomes and also the timeframe involved, the costs involved. I think if you’re not…if the client doesn’t know that before coming in, I think that just leads to disappointment down the road. So all of those pertinent facts on both sides need to be put on the table.
Sharon Davis: I certainly think that all of those tips, you know, if they’re done well results in a really strong and good client/lawyer relationship. And that, at the end of the day, is what’s going to achieve good results because it really is a combination of the two and, you know, if you can set that up, the earlier you can, the better.
Paul Trudelle: I completely agree. Well thank you very much, Sharon. That was a great paper and I’m glad you brought that to our attention.
Sharon Davis: You’re welcome. I think that about brings us to the end of this week’s discussion. Thanks for listening and thanks for joining me today, Paul.
Paul Trudelle: Thank you, Sharon. We look forward to hearing from our listeners. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to visit our blog. I understand you’re blogging all of this week, Sharon?
Sharon Davis: I am, it’s a lot of me this week so tune in.
Paul Trudelle: Yes, so read Sharon this week and read all of our blogs. Thank you very much. I’m Paul Trudelle.
Sharon Davis: And I’m Sharon Davis.
This has been Hull on Estates with the lawyers of Hull & Hull. The podcast you have been listening to has been provided as an information service. It is a summary of current legal issues in estates and estate planning. It is not legal advice and you are reminded to always talk with a legal professional regarding your specific circumstances.
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