Communication is at the centre of every lawyer's practice. Writing letters of advice and emails, attending meetings, representing clients in court, or briefing barristers - the list goes on. However, this does not necessarily mean lawyers are good or effective communicators. So how do you become an effective communicator? How do you get your message across in the best way possible? Read our favourite tips from our latest course "Effective Communication Skills for Lawyers" to help you become a more effective communicator.
Since so much of a lawyer's day is spent communicating, lawyers can’t afford to be poor communicators. Yet, poor communication is one of the greatest sources of complaints made against lawyers according to the 2016/2017 Annual Report of the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner (NSW). This means lawyers must understand how to effectively convey a message whilst ensuring the recipient understands the intention and the purpose behind the message.
Effective communication is about how you say something, why you say it, when you say it, your body language, and what you don't say. Read on to learn more about the ten key elements for more effective communication.
Why is effective communication important for lawyers?
There are two main reasons why lawyers need to be effective communicators.
Effective communication saves you (and your clients) time and money
If you are an effective communicator you lower the risk of misunderstandings, both within your practice and with your clients. Misunderstandings can be costly and sometimes expensive to solve - something you and your clients will want to avoid. Effective communication ensures everyone is aware of what is expected of them and what action they need to take.
Effective communication improves client relationships
You can't underestimate how important trust is in the lawyer-client relationship. Communicating effectively with your clients means you foster greater trust in your abilities as a lawyer. This leads to improved client satisfaction and reduces the risk of complaints being made against you. A happy client is also a good source of repeat business and will likely give you good referrals.
10 tips to improve your legal communication skills
1. Use leadership language
The words you use when you communicate with others play a huge role in how others perceive you and interpret your message.
Do you often find yourself using words such as "maybe", or "I guess so"? Start using definitive language like "yes", "no", or "I will do that". This is called leadership language. By incorporating leadership language in your communications your message will become even more powerful and persuasive.
2. Listening skills
Have you heard the expression “Silence is golden”? One of the biggest steps to becoming a good communicator is becoming a good listener. Practicing active listening helps to build mutual trust as the person you’re listening to feels that you’re seeking to understand them. It also helps to avoid miscommunications, as you are genuinely more likely to correctly understand what the other person is saying.
You can easily incorporate active listening into your conversations with colleagues and clients. One simple step is to always wait to clarify what someone means until they have finished speaking. If you jump in straight away this can be interpreted as rude, or that you are trying to put forward your own ideas before listening to others. If you need to ask clarifying questions, ask politely once the other person is finished.
3. Know your audience
Formal legal language is unfortunately not accessible to everyone. If you use an overly formal or archaic language when talking to clients there’s a risk that your core message will get lost. Instead, use plain English and avoid legalese as much as possible.
4. Body language
Did you know that folding your arms in front of your body can indicate that you are feeling defensive? Or fiddling with a pen that might mean people think you’re bored or uncomfortable? Even when you are not talking in a meeting, you need to be aware of how you are communicating with your posture, facial expressions, or eye-contact.
Is your posture slouched? Square your shoulders and open up your chest to show you are engaged. If you usually fiddle with your clothes or pens, adopt simple hand gestures such as the hand steeple to occupy your hands and make you appear more confident.
It’s not only your own body language you need to be aware of - you also need to pay attention to the non verbal cues of the people you are communicating with. Focusing on this will help you to see how they are responding to you and give clues about whether your message is getting across. Is the person you are talking too looking confused? Try pausing and giving them an opportunity to ask questions. Are they avoiding looking you in the eye? This can be a sign of nervousness - but remember, some cultures view direct eye contact as disrespectful. This last example highlights the importance of exercising cultural awareness and sensitivity as part of effective communication.
5. Be clear and concise
Have you ever talked to someone that keeps on rambling on? Most of the time, we tune out. If you want to keep your audience’s attention, the best policy is to convey your message in as few words as possible. So before you speak, ask yourself: what is the core of my message? What’s the bottom line and what is relevant? And finally, how do I communicate this as simply as possible?
6. Building Rapport
Being able to build rapport with your clients is paramount for any lawyer. This is because building rapport will improve trust and understanding between you and your clients. Sometimes rapport happens naturally; we get the feeling that we just "hit it off" with another person. Other times we have to put in more effort to build positive rapport.
A simple trick to improve rapport is to match and mirror the behaviour of your client. Do they tend to use certain hand gestures? Try adopting the same hand gestures. Is your client talking fast or slow? Talk to match their speed. Is your client using special phrases or words when talking? Try to incorporate these in your own communication. Subtly adopting some of the behaviours of your client can help you to build a better connection.
Lawyers often deal with clients who are under a lot of pressure. If a client has never been involved in legal proceedings before, they may experience anxiety because they don't know what to expect. By showing empathy, you're likely to provide better service to your clients and give better advice - both of which result in happier, calmer clients.
Put yourself in your client's shoes. What is your client feeling at the moment, what are their thoughts and beliefs? By asking yourself questions such as "if I was this client, what would I like to know?" "How often would I like to have updates on my case?” Thinking about your client's state of mind will put you on the path to becoming a more empathetic lawyer.
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Asking for and giving feedback is a key element of becoming a more effective communicator.
If you show that you’re open to feedback, you show that you care about the opinions and feelings of colleagues and clients - making them feel more valued. By giving feedback and seeking clarification you’re also more likely to avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication.
Incorporating feedback into your communication is easy. It can be as simple as reiterating instructions you are given, asking clarifying questions to confirm you have understood, or simply praising a colleague for a job well done.
9. Picking the right medium
People prefer different types of communication - some people favor a phone call while others like short meetings. Think about what the person you’re trying to communicate with is likely to prefer. If they are very busy, do you really need to have a meeting or would a well thought out email be more appropriate? Are they likely to have follow up questions? Then a phone call can be the best option. Choosing the right medium for your communication is an important part of making sure your communication is effective and impactful.
Lawyers need to be confident in their interactions with others. Confidence shows that you believe in your views and opinions and these will be more persuasive to others.
There are ways of appearing to be confident (even when you're not.)
For the moments when you would like to appear more confident always make sure that you use a stable and clear voice, slow down your speech and breathe between your sentences. When we are in stressful situations we breathe into our upper chest and this hinders our capacity to connect breathing to speaking effectively. Also, make sure to make eye contact and smile - when we are in tense or stressful situations such as in a courtroom or in front of a judge it is natural to feel underconfident. But if you lift your head up, smile and make eye contact it’s easier to create a connection with the people around you - helping you feel more comfortable and confident.
All lawyers should strive to be effective communicators. In our latest course "Effective Communication Skills for Lawyers", Amy Castos breaks down the topic of effective legal communication and gives you practical tools to build your skills to become a more proficient communicator.