Bucking the Trend of Giving Good Legal Advice

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chimpanzee checks out the chin of another chimpI am a lawyer. It is important that my clients and I communicate effectively. If we do not fully understand one another, then giving good advice  may have little value to my client.

Two essential skills I need to facilitate effective communication are careful listening and clear presentation of information.  The law is often complicated. Results vary depending on specific facts. Grey is the official color of the law and it comes in many shades.  Explaining how it applies to each client’s situation without using legal jargon requires that I consider my words and methods of communication carefully. It is also important for me to see things from each client’s perspective.

If my client and I talk face to face, we can enjoy the benefit of a rich conversation, complete with ample opportunity to listen, observe non-verbal clues, ask questions and repeat this process until we both feel satisfied that we have each been heard and understood. On the importance of a lawyer really listening, Jack Welch, (former) CEO of General Electric, praised corporate counsel Steven Volk by stating, “He is a really great advisor. He listens better than anybody else.”

One enemy of effective communication is the expectation that answers can and should be provided instantaneously in any situation. To make matters worse, we are rapidly losing our ability to pay close attention to anything. We expect information fast, lightning fast. We want fast at the expense of accuracy backed by reputation and investigation.

Some clients want email responses from me to complex legal questions. I make judgments dozens of times a day about whether I can properly respond to email inquiries. Many would demand information via texts if I was willing to give out my cell number freely. But the fabric of legal opinion is too rich to be spun into a thin text message strand.

I find myself moving in the opposite direction; swimming against the current. I want my clients to fully understand the information and advice I offer them. And I want to know that they understand. More and more I am relying on illustrations and short publications I have created to help clients understand, learn and remember. A significant number of scientific studies have shown the value of providing information so it engages multiple senses as a good way to help others learn and remember.

One successful example of this is my illustration of three boxes which I use regularly for estate planning discussions. It has been so well accepted, I hear my clients refer to box 1, box 2 or box 3 assets as shorthand for their assets we have symbolically placed in them. This visual aid helps my clients understand how laws of distribution, contracts and wills must all work together to make an effective estate plan.

I want my information and advice to be fully understood by my clients. I want it to be better than “good advice” falling on confused ears. So, I have coined for myself the term “best advice” meaning advice which is fully understood by my clients. And it is best served in the old-fashioned setting of face to face.