Practice Management

On the record

Your LLB has taught you everything you need to know about legal writing, advocacy, delict, equity, property law, succession and more. You have tomes of legal references in your extensive library and you keep yourself current by reading a variety of media. Your practice is a well-oiled machine - your staff know their place (and how you take your coffee), communications are sent and received with military precision. And every visit to the court is a victory.

Are you winning in your own battlefield, though?

Law is a service profession, and good service is dependent upon good communication skills. Even the most seasoned lawyers need good communication skills if they want customers. Customers keep the coffers of a practice in good shape. Simply stated, no customers mean no practice.

"Communication" is the exchange of information. It can be written, verbal and non-verbal. Information in a legal context is largely exchanged through questioning, cross-examination and documentation reviews. The art of oration cannot be under-stated - a powerful opening argument, an equally powerful closing statement can significantly influence decisions and outcomes. But speaking is only one facet of communication: active listening is equally important.

That old saying about the reason we have two ears and one mouth is extremely valid; simply hearing what your client says is not listening, and it's definitely not active listening. Truly active listeners use more than just their auditory skills - they use sight and intuition, they listen carefully to pitch and tone, they look for visual signals from their clients. And they are present - they are actually there with their client. Not mentally going over a to-do list, or listening to their inner judge while their client is talking. When you are really listening, you are paying close attention. You are getting the whole picture.

So how then does one develop one's listening skills, a number of pointers will help:
1. Know your own listening style
We listen through filters, the filters of our own personal ideology, experience, needs and wants. By understanding your "inner judge", you will be able to start putting these filters into retirement and to truly listen better.

2. Listen to what isn't being said
What is the emotion behind the words? Is your client ashamed to tell you something? What details are being left out? And why? Body language is not a simple science; different clusters of the same body movements and facial expressions can mean an infinite number of different things.

3. Develop and integrate your intuition
Integrating this intuition into the way that you listen to clients also trains you for more satisfying relationships with spouses, partners, family, etc. When you truly listen to someone, you can "hear" much more than the words that are spoken. Just be sure you remain aware of your inner judge!

4. Create a listening environment
Close the door, turn off phone and put all your attention on the client. Make sure you will not be interrupted unless there is a genuine emergency. Consider your seating arrangements (sitting directly opposite your client is not generally a great idea - it can be perceived as combative, superior, even; it can also be very intimidating for some clients.) When not in the office, close your eyes and concentrate on listening if you're on the 'phone. In a public place, establish appropriate eye contact and step away from other people to create a 'space'.

5. Acknowledge and reflect
During a first appointment with their lawyer, a client might be angry - they feel they have suffered a wrong and want you to rectify it. They may also be embarrassed, upset or feel helpless. Acknowledge these emotions and reflect them back. Reflecting gives you two advantages in your legal arsenal - you can clarify the exact emotion attached to your client's case and also identify what your client is really looking for from you in terms of a solution. Lastly, you are better positioned to establish a bond of trust with your client, ensuring that the details he or she gives you will be accurate and factual.

6. Become human
Lawyers want to get straight into the legal issues, so much so, that a client who feels bombarded by options, might become upset and eventually just set out to find another lawyer! Clients may not always be able to differentiate between financial, legal, emotional or personal issues - they're all mixed up. A good lawyer will help a client work through a rambling discussion and put the issues into logical and coherent categories. Bonus points for the lawyer as the client now realises you care enough to listen carefully and further bonus points because your client will start becoming more focused and less emotional.

Your communication skills will either secure a client for life (and more clients - as word-of-mouth is a more powerful advocate of good service than any landmark judgement) or you can harm your reputation as badly as if you had a perfect 10 in downright incompetence.

Your clients build your business; they build your future. This is where it is all about YOU - YOUR communication skills; YOUR ability to "tap into" your clients - what they want, what they need, what they're saying and what they're not saying. And how you can maximise yours - and your clients' - investments in your expertise. Whilst your degree is an indication of your legal prowess, it is the human being that stands in front of it that determines the success - or failure - of your legal practice.

To make the most of your communication skills and improve your practice, please contact our National Consulting Manager for GhostPractice, Kuben Naidoo. Alternately, contact Traci-Ann Cripsey from Mi-S.E.L.F, Korbitec's soft-skills facilitation partner.

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