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  • By Leo Staub

You cannot not communicate!

Updated: Aug 14


This sentence was coined by the Austrian communication expert Paul Watzlawick. He formulated it as one of five axioms about communication, and of course he hit the nail on the head. We lawyers, however, often regard this in somewhat more restricted terms. To us, communication is what we express in our legal documents, in our oral deliveries, in our law firm brochures and on our websites. Thus we consistently think “from inside to outside” when it comes to communication. Which means that we completely blank out the client perspective! Let’s sound out these blind spots of lawyer communication together!

Time and again, studies of clients’ satisfaction with their lawyers reveal (most recently by LexisNexis: The Bellwether Report Series 2019) that we lawyers overestimate our communication skills. Whilst we think of ourselves as great communicators, our clients view us with rather more critical eyes. Where should we improve?

1) Clients complain that we show too little empathy. Empathy provides clients with the feeling that they are sitting opposite someone who is capable of putting themselves in their position. Needless to say, this feeling cannot be generated by means of a lecture. Rather, this is about listening. Clients realise that we are listening if we actively acknowledge what we have heard (“Do I understand you properly?”, “Can I sum this up as follows?”).

2) Lawyers tend to express themselves in legalese. Sociologists would comment that we use a proprietary language intended to differentiate us experts from our clients. If we want to be understood, however, we will have to avoid this legal jargon. Short sentences, “normal” language, “less is more” and the avoidance of Latin tags are imperative! Only if we succeed in explaining even complex issues in easily understandable terms will communication generate trust.

3) We have learnt to communicate in polished sentences. However, many of our clients find the text-intensive nature of our legal documents difficult. They are engineers, managers or natural scientists who are used to employing graphs or formulae when it comes to representing contexts. Thus lawyers should try and visualise communication contents in their dealings with clients whenever possible. With a bit a practice, this is easily managed, and you may be assured of your clients’ gratitude!

4) Many brochures, newsletters and law firm websites are also text-intensive. This is a pity! Here, we fall into precisely the same trap as in “one to one” communication. Yet particularly the media which we use to advertise our law firms offer many opportunities for attractive communication. Use images, graphs, spoken statements, personalised contents or videos! There are numerous studies which provide evidence of the fact that a certain measure of emotionality can be produced in this way. This is indispensable if the impression which our clients gain from our communication should be sustainable and inspire confidence.

Of course there is still a great deal to say about the issue of communication between lawyers and clients. But if you take these four tips to heart, you will be richly rewarded! That’s a promise!

This blog was originally published on 16 January 2020 in Vista, the online magazine of the Executive School, University of St.Gallen, Switzerland.

About the Author Prof. Dr. Leo Staub is Professor emeritus of the University of St. Gallen where he, until spring 2020, served as the Academic Director of the division Law & Management. He is still active and internationally recognized as a scholar in the field of Legal Management. Leo can be reached at leo.staub@unisg.ch

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