Back to Basics: Competence in Communications

Communication-based claims and complaints against lawyers remain remarkably common despite the increased ease with which we can communicate with clients through use of technology in addition to more traditional modes of communication.

Strong and effective communications between lawyers and their clients are an essential component of the lawyer-client relationship. Some of the issues that might be flagged as problematic in a communications based claim include:

  • Failing to obtain and follow a client’s instructions;
  • Failing to keep a client informed of progress, or lack of progress in complying with instructions;
  • Failing to advise a client of all settlement offers;
  • Confusion as to the scope of the retainer;
  • Misdirected communications; and
  • Misunderstandings as to legal advice provided.

But challenges in communications are not limited to those between lawyers and their clients; issues also frequently arise in communications between counsel, as well as in communications with third parties, including witnesses, experts and other service providers.

Effectively communicating in the course of a legal practice is essential to avoid claims and complaints, no matter the medium of communication or your relationships to person with whom you are communicating.

Whether you’re using the telephone, meeting face to face, corresponding by letter or email, following these 10 simple tips will go far to enhance communications with your clients, your colleagues and others you connect with in the course of your practice:

  1. Return phone calls and respond to voicemail messages within a reasonable time period. If you or your firm has an established practice in this regard, adhere to it rigorously.
  2. Reply (but not Reply All) to email requests, even if only to acknowledge you’re working on whatever is the subject of the request.
  3. If you need some time or must first obtain instructions, provide a courteous follow-up to that effect and fix a date by which you’ll respond more fully.
  4. Keep your client informed – about what is or is not happening on a file.
  5. Speak your client’s language, not the language of law – legalese confounds and confuses. Use language appropriate to your client’s literacy and competency, not your own.
  6. Ensure your communications are clear and to the point. Don’t obfuscate.
  7. Use retainer or engagement letters to inform your client about communication standards and practices and then adhere to those standards.
  8. Don’t forget to pick up the phone and call when it is appropriate to do so.
  9. Use in-person and onsite meetings to make real human connections. Don’t rely wholly on electronic communication tools and recognize that in many circumstances, in-person contact is necessary.
  10. Check, check & check again: spelling, grammar, address and terms of address should all be reviewed and edited before sending out written communications, whether paper or electronic.

Adapted from the article of the same title, originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Loss Prevention Bulletin published by Canadian Lawyers Insurance Association.

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