Does YOUR Lawyer Listen to You?
Does YOUR Lawyer Listen to You?
We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. –Epictetus
Listening is a fundamental skill required to interact in our world. It was as important when this quote was made sometime between 70 and 135 AD as it is today.
Some people have better developed listening skills than others. These are skills. Like hockey players, we can develop our skills. Sydney Crosby is much better hockey player than I (I expect that anyone who has laced skates is a better hockey player than me, but that’s a conversation for another day).
Gifted communicators are people with good listening skills. This occurs because, not surprisingly, they understand what information their audiences seek. But it goes further than that. They also understand how the audience receives information.
Good listeners seek to understand more than the factual information their audience seeks.
Obtaining factual information is the easy part. A customer at a coffee shop asks for a cup of coffee. It’s quite obvious what that person wants.
A good listener also seeks to understand their audience’s emotional state. Let’s take the example provided above. Let’s say the coffee shop is not a chain but a specially shop. If the customer seems relaxed and carries a book, the server might surmise that she is looking to spend some time in the shop. The server might then engage the customer in a longer conversation about the types of roasts available.
Conversely, if it’s 8:45 am and the person seems distracted, the good listener will get straight to the point, asking whether the customer prefers light over dark roast and suggests a to-go cup.
Notice here that the good listener is obtaining a bunch of information from the customer even before they begin speaking to one another. The good listener focusses on the audience from the moment they approach one another.
Communicating with your lawyer is no different. Good listeners focus on the client from the moment he or she walks in the door.
While in the example cited above an exchange over a cup of coffee will likely have a minor impact in your day (Ok, if you like coffee the way I do, it may not be small at all…) a client seeking legal advice is usually under a significant amount of stress.
A positive and exciting reason like the purchase of a house or the acquisition of a business, may be the cause of stress. Or it could be something terribly upsetting like facing criminal charges, a divorce, or a death in the family.
In either case, clients are almost always in a heightened emotional state when they attend their lawyers office. In addition, by the time the client sees the lawyer for the first time, the client has been mulling over the underlying issue for awhile and the he or she has many unanswered questions contributing to the stress.
A lawyer who listens is critical. The lawyer cannot change the underlying facts. If your spouse is divorcing you, your lawyer can’t change that. But a good lawyer, one who listens, will spend the time necessary to understand your needs and your emotional state.
This doesn’t mean that your lawyer can address all of your needs. A client may be so angry that therapy is required. It does however mean that your lawyer should recognize that and validate it.
So why do some lawyers talk down or talk at their clients? Why do some people feel like their lawyer doesn’t listen or care?
Challenging practice areas
The problem usually arises for several reasons. First of all, lawyers who practice in a certain area like family or criminal defence law live through other people’s crises every day.
While one client may be divorcing their spouse of 20 years and their life is completely falling apart, the lawyer’s next appointment will also be with someone who’s life is falling apart.
When people’s lives are falling apart, they do not usually act or think rationally. Emotions are overwhelming. From the lawyer’s perspective, this can be incredibly difficult to navigate. Lawyers have their own lives to contend with. If your lawyer is having an off day, or worse, going through a difficult time, his or her ability to empathized will suffer. He or she may be unable to remain attentive to the client’s emotional needs.
Secondly, lawyers do not receive any training in dealing with people. In fact law school teaches students to go through legal issues and problems very methodically and logically. The reality of practicing law is at considerable odds with most curriculums at law faculties on this point.
Lawyers are trained to discover legal problems in different fact scenarios. Because the law is complex (and doesn’t always make sense), facts that a client may feel are important may not be important to the lawyer. The reverse is also true. Facts the client may feel are minor, may change a case entirely.
So, some lawyers can be short with clients when the client focuses on facts that are irrelevant legally speaking. A good listener, in this case, will recognize that those facts are important to the client. A good listener will let the client get those issues of their chest.
These problems (the lack of “people skills” and the often overwhelming emotional reality clients face) are significant obstacles for many lawyers. However, this does not absolve us of our responsibilities to our clients.
As a profession, we must be more attentive to the human side of law. Law only exists because people must interact. When people interact, it gets messy. In order to fully understand a problem, we must actively listen to the client. We must understand their motivations and their fears. We must provide our clients with a space that validates their concerns while providing the service they seek. The profession must do all of this at a reasonable cost on a reasonable time frame.
It’ s not an easy task, but it’s part of our duty.
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.