Saturday, March 17, 2012

Solving The Number One Client Complaint: Does Your Lawyer Communicate?

Momma's Rules

The number one complaint that people have about lawyers is that they do not return calls. My mother taught me a great many things about manners. She was not academically educated or from the upper crust of society but number one was always return a call, number two, call if you were running late, number three do the right thing (don't treat people with disrespect), number four, always bring something to dinner, don't show up empty handed. Basic rules for getting along or as my parents quipped acting like people not low class animals.

Back then class had less to do with how much you made, or what you were (your job/profession), or where you went to school. Whether you had or didn't have "Class" had more to do with how you treated other people.

The Un-informed

In my law practice I get calls and emails all the time from people after they have been represented (by other lawyers) that they still don't know what happened. In other words, they were represented, they went to Court multiple times, and they were left wondering and wandering about the outcome, about their future, and about their licenses. They don't know about their conditional discharges (what's that), probation, drug/alcohol evaluations and treatment, Court obligations, and what happens next.

They usually say, "my lawyer never told me anything." Well that's probably not true, after all I am sure the lawyers told them something. These lawyers just maybe didn't ensure that their clients understood everything or maybe they didn't explain it in their clients unique language. Was their client more visual, auditory, or kinesthetic? I'll save the basics of NLP (neuro linguistic programming), and clients modes of communication for another day.

The Ostrich Syndrome

In days long past doctors and lawyers would just take people's papers, and problems at face value. They would tell them not to worry, just let me handle it, and do as I say. Take this pill, stop eating grapes, avoid the sun, and show up at 9:00 on this date. Clients and patients were treated as mushrooms. Left in the dark. Not fully knowing or engaging in the solutions. They were in my mind spectators at the game, and never treated as participants. Fast forward to 2012, I believe that most people want information, they want options, and they want engagement. I say "most" people because there are those that still don't want to know. They believe that not knowing will be better than knowing. I call this "Ostrich Syndrome." Stick your head in the sand, and wait for it all to be over.

Ostrich Syndrome is truly a childish mentality that is still given a level of support from either dinosaur lawyers and old school doctors.

Relationship Success

In all my relationships I have found a common denominator for success: regular, meaningful, and focused communication. Let's break these up one at a time.

Regular Communication: As much as parents and spouses love to talk about "quality" time, I don't believe that you can make quality time happen. You don't know when a moment will be a moment. That sounds pretty Zen but the truth is you don't know when your kids are going to walk, or ask a big question, or say "mama or dada." You just don't know. Likewise, clients just want updates. Regular to me means "Is anything happening?" If it's not fine, but let me know. Or if we are waiting for something or someone I'd like to know about that as well. I call it "checking in." Checking in regularly demonstrates you care, you are there, and things are moving. The refrain, I haven't heard from you in so long, whether from your lover or your mother is not just guilt. Not hearing from someone (that you supposedly have a relationship with) for long stretches of time makes you feel distant and alone.

Meaningful Communication: Are all your questions being answered? You may just want an answer to something that just came up or you just considered. Have your fears been allayed or at the very least been given a context? Things always need background, a wall or a field to place them upon. Nobody discusses problems or situations in a vacuum. In football, we have a playing field and yard lines. We have quarters, time periods, rules to follow, this is all context. Law has a similar playing field. When discussing matters with those I care about I ask what their concerns are. Maybe they have a different perspective then I do. What they may feel is important may be different than what I believe matters.

Focused Communication: People want to know what things mean "specifically" for them. Situations are infinitely different if someone is 19 years old versus 51 years old, if someone has a government clearance or work's at BK, if someone is applying for an internship or leaving the state, or planning to get a professional license or getting a new position, what does all this mean to them? Legal problems can affect not only the here and now but can also have a ripple effect upon their future. Within the timeline of this person's life (job, school, family, children) how are things proceeding or going to proceed?

Why Do So Many Relationships Not Work? 

Some may disagree with me (they are probably not in long term healthy relationships) but relationships are hard. I believe a great many fail because they require nurturing and effort. Communication is work. Like regular eating and exercise for a healthy body, a relationship without good (regular, meaningful, focused) communication will whither and die. It is not something that can be left to chance. I've been with my wife for 25 years. Before you give me any credit realize that that is less a kudos to me then a testament to her ability to put up with me. I have been working on communicating better my entire life.

For every excellent communicator there are probably 100 who barely explain anything. It is both an art and science. There are plenty of lawyers but not so many counselors at law. I believe it is the number ONE killer of all relationships, not just professional ones. But I also believe that when it is done well it is beautiful. There is nothing better than having good relationships with those around you. I believe that the true measure of pain or pleasure in your life (and practice) is in equal measure to the quality of your ongoing communication with those you care about.

Law Offices of Lawrence Newman
Attorney and Counselor at Law

504 North Aurora Street
Ithaca, NY 14850