THE SUFFOLK LAWYER — OCTOBER 2008 - Page 10
By John P.Bracken and Dan Berger
In order to provide legal counsel to a client you must first help them emotionally. Most clients that come to you are at least worried and often quite scared. After all, does every client arrive brightly smiling and delighted to be in your office and paying you a fee? Prospective clients come to your office more often than not in some stress. Whether it is a dispute with a partner, a matrimonial problem, a personal injury or estate planning, in all of those there is at least some anxiety or stress. While the clients need your legal expertise, they cannot truly accept it and make use of it until they receive sufficient comfort and confidence so that they can trust you and then listen to you. The entire professional relationship is based on this first step. Avoiding or simply skipping it can undermine your client’s ability to listen, receive and follow your advice. That first meeting should establish a connection between you and your client. Indeed,in the initial first meeting such “connectedness” is probably more important than your legal expertise. The message to the client should be “I want to help you.” Staying in this phase for a while, indeed, if time permits, spending most of the first contact here will allow what occurs in future contacts more meaningful to your client. They will relate to you and trust you. If they don’t connect and trust,then the future of this relationship is likely to be fraught with miscommunication and distrust.
Without a doubt, many clients want to get immediate feedback and quick responses, thus you must necessarily provide some legal information so that they feel they achieved the purpose for which they consulted you.
Most lawyers love to talk, however listening to your client is more important than talking to them, especially in the initial contact when you are attempting to establish a relationship based upon trust. So how do you listen? Listening is an internal process that has little or no outward manifestation. Your client will know you have been listening in the way you ask questions or make comments in response to what he or she says. They will know you are listening because what you say is in response to what they are talking about, not about your thoughts and ideas. Indeed, it should be about them, which will then give them the feeling that you are and will be focused on them and their needs, not your needs. For many people walking into an attorney’s office induces feelings of distrust. Listening to them goes a long way in helping to dispel these feelings and establishing trust.
By asking questions you give your client the impression that you are personally interested in them and their problem and not simply placing them in a pre-existing category which suits your needs and your initial and likely premature perception, but may have little or nothing to do with them. The questions should be layered, starting with a general question and then proceeding to the specifics. For example, an initial question might be “how can I help you.” Once the person tells you more about why they are there you might ask the person to elaborate on the problem utilizing open ended questions, such as “tell me more,” or “could you give me some more details about what happened.” Including some brief restatement of the problem imbedded in the question will give the person the feeling that you are listening and have an awareness of the issue. See more about restatement below. Be careful however not to include too much jargon or “legalese” that might give the impression that you are focused on what you think the problem is rather than what the client thinks. You, of course, have a better idea of the legal implications but until the client is ready for your input it is not only useless but maybe counterproductive in that it will feed their distrust rather than build trust.
Early in the initial appointment you might ask questions that will allow the client to talk some more so that they have a chance to fully explain the problem. Keep in mind what we said above, that your client is likely worried or scared. Giving them a chance to fully explain their view of the problem will both contribute to the feeling you are willing to take the time to listen to them and it also gives them a chance to express the feeling and transfer the problem from them to you. This cathartic experience is very powerful in establishing a relationship. To facilitate this experience your questions should be open ended. Let’s say a client walks into your office stating he has been arrested for a DWI. You might ask why they were pulled over, how much did they have to drink, what was the time period between their last drink and the arrest and many more questions. Such intense questioning however could give the client the feeling that he is being cross examined by an ADA, rather than a helpful attorney.
An example of some open ended questions might be: “please tell me what happened,” “tell me what you did in the hours before the accident” or “what do you recall happening after you were stopped.” Later, after the client has told their version of events, you can ask some specific questions.
One way to give a person the impression that you are listening is to restate what they say in your own words. Essentially you are acting as a mirror. For example a client might say: “after being hit by the car I was knocked out and when I woke up I was disoriented and was not sure where I was. The police officer told me that an ambulance was on the way. After a while I felt better and then got very angry. I began to wonder if I could sue.” Although the client is clearly asking a question, you might consider not answering right away but first say: “A car hit you and you were knocked unconscious and after you awoke you felt angry and began to consider if you had grounds for a suit. Do I understand that correctly?” If the client agrees you might then say: “It sounds like you might have a case. Let me ask you a few questions so that I better understand your situation.” Please note that in this example we include restatement of the client’s feelings as well as the facts.
Include emotional feed back to give the impression that you understand the problem both emotionally and legally. This is especially true in initial contact(s). Comments like “…this has been very hard on you” and “you sound like you are very upset with all of this,” could go a long way in building that trusting relationship. The trusting relationship is the bedrock of a good professional relationship and will allow the personto become a client of yours.
Whenever we give presentations on this topic someone in the audience often brings up the idea of being truly sincere and honest when attempting to be manifestly sensitive and understanding. Our assumption in this article is that the sincerity is there and the question is how to express it. If sincerity is not there and you, or someone in your firm, are not concerned about forming a trusting relationship, then that is the subject of another paper. Assuming however that you are sincerely concerned about your clients, then how to express the feelings becomes a relevant question. A short answer to the question is to try to do it or “fake it till you make it.” Like many other activities in life,practice does make perfect and practicing with colleagues, hiring an executive coach or therapist to help in the practiceand change the effort could be of help. If this seems alien to you consider that you would hire a pro to improve your golf or tennis game, why not someone to improve the skillful use of your emotions and feelings that could greatly improve your ability to help your clients and practice your profession.
Note: Dan Berger Ed.D. of Stony Brook, is an organizational consultant with over 30 years of experience as a psychologist working in various settings. He holds a doctorate in Personnel Psychology from Columbia University and is licensed to practice psychology in New York State. Dr. Berger’s consulting experience is diverse including Business, Health Care and Education settings.
Note: John P. Bracken, a Partner at Bracken & Margolin, LLP, Islandia and past President of the SCBA, practices in real estate, commercial,criminal, personal injury and general litigation on both trial and appellate levels before all Federal and State Courts. In 1987 he received a Certification by the National Board of Trial Advocacy as a CivilTrial Specialist.