Getting a Straight Answer From Your Lawyer
Getting a Straight Answer From Your Lawyer can be so Difficult! Why?
Complex legalese can often be to blame. The most common complaint consumers have about lawyers is about communication. Every law society in Canada cautions its members about the dangers of poor and infrequent communication with clients.
There are two aspects of communication that get lawyers into trouble.
The first aspect is responsiveness. This one is simple. Lawyers often don’t get back to clients in a timely fashion.
The second aspect is one of clarity. When lawyers meet their clients, they often speak in legal terms or “legalese”. While the lawyer understands the concepts, it’s very unhelpful for the client. Legalese requires paraphrasing similar to how deciphering Shakespearean plays was part of grade-school assignments; you have to decipher what they actually mean.
I want to explore with you some of the reasons behind this behavior. But before I do, I want to make it clear that I am not seeking to excuse the behavior. I believe that part of the service we provide, the service you are paying for, is to ensure that first, we get back to you and second, you understand what the issues are by using plain language. If you leave the office and you don’t understand every aspect of your case or legal issue, then you are not getting your money’s worth. The lawyer failed in his or her job.
During a normal work day, lawyers engage in two speeds of work. This is not unique to lawyers. Most people deal with this “problem”. You have “busy” work and you have “deep thinking” work.
Busy work encompasses answering emails and telephone calls, reviewing correspondence, and meeting with clients. By busy working, I don’t mean insignificant work. Rather I mean activities that require efficiency and responsiveness. For example, when meeting with clients, clients ask questions. You must “think on your feet” to respond. This engages a high level of alertness. You can get a lot of small things done.
Deep thinking work
Conversely, Deep Thinking work requires you to spend time alone contemplating a big problem or a big project. This type of work requires isolation and an absence of distractions. You must have time to read and contemplate how the research impacts the problem at hand. The key to this type of work is to remain uninterrupted.
In an age of email, texts, and instant results, people expect almost immediate responses. Immediate responses for the lawyer can be difficult in both modes. First, if the lawyer is in busy mode and meeting clients, then responding immediately is impossible. If you were meeting with your lawyer, you wouldn’t want him or her to be responding to other clients’ calls or emails.
If the lawyer is in Deep Thinking mode, then emails and phone calls can be very distracting. Studies have shown that responding to your email alert and reading the email can interrupt your work for up to 20 minutes. You can imagine how this can cause a problem when you have set aside an hour to deal with a specific problem. You just lost a third of your time!
But… just because a desire for an immediate response is not realistic does not mean that expecting a timely response is unreasonable. A timely response is one when the lawyer returns the phone call the same morning, afternoon or on the outside the same day.
While the lawyer may have back to back client meetings or research time scheduled, he or she should also schedule the time to respond to phone calls and emails before lunch and before leaving the office.
If client relationships are important to the lawyer, these scheduled times are a priority. Being able to respond in a timely fashion is, in my opinion, an ethical obligation. Legal matters are important to people. We should not be contributing to the stress clients are already under by failing to respond in a timely manner.
The second issue is the pervasive use of legalese in lawyer’s offices. Legalese is jargon, pure and simple.
The use of jargon is not limited to the legal profession. When’s the last time you heard “building synergies”? I won’t define it for you. If you need to refresh your memory, here is the Wikipedia definition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jargon.
Appropriate setting for legalese
Jargon is useful within a group or in the case of the lawyer within the profession. It allows us, when communicating with one another, to sum up, a legal concept with one word. Between lawyers, it saves time and it allows us to be concise.
However, when meeting with you, the client, we have an obligation to explain these concepts. We can’t do that by using legalese because those terms mean nothing to you. If we are unable to articulate in plain language the issues facing you, then how are we providing value? How can you, the client, make the necessary decisions?
I remember my first meeting with a lawyer. We had just bought our first house, a half duplex for $49,000.00 when I was a Corporal in the Army. I left the lawyer’s office completely in the dark after signing a bunch of forms I didn’t understand. My wife and I had no idea what, if any, liabilities we were taking on. I had no idea what the lawyer did, other than take my money, and make sure I got the keys.
I can’t think of any other profession where this happens. If you see your doctor, and you have a disease or a disorder, the doctor will take the time to explain your condition. The doctor won’t use the terms from his or her textbooks. If he or she does, they will explain in layman’s terms. Lawyers are under the same obligation.
Hopefully, now you will have some insight into why your lawyer isn’t getting back to you or when you meet him or her. During busy seasons, such as July 1st for real estate lawyers, it can be very challenging meeting all of our deadlines and possessions while at the same time responding in a timely fashion.
I am as guilty as the next lawyer for dropping the ball on returning calls during those times. But this will be the exception rather than the norm in a well-managed practice and with a conscientious lawyer.
Hopefully, you have had good experiences with your lawyer. If you haven’t then you should change. I would not go back to a car dealer who provided bad service. You should not tolerate the same with lawyers.
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Disclaimer – Legalese
I appreciate the irony of this disclaimer, but while I am critical of the rules, I must still play by them, so here goes….This article is presented for informational purposes only. The content does not constitute legal advice or solicitation and does not create a solicitor client relationship (this means that I am not your lawyer until we both agree that I am). If you are seeking advice on specific matters, please contact Philippe Richer at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 204.925.1900. We cannot consider any unsolicited information sent to the author as solicitor-client privileged (this means confidential).
Philippe Richer is President of TLR Law Group. TLR has been located in the St. Boniface neighbourhood, in Winnipeg, since 1996. The office serves the middle class and small business within the province. With a focus on estates, wills, real estate, and corporate law, he leads his team in providing accessible legal services. Philippe also authored the business law course for the Knowledge Bureau and instructed the français juridique class at the faculty of Law at the University of Manitoba.