Many physicians are evaluated not only on their medical knowledge but their “bedside manner” when interacting with patients. Bedside manner is usually defined as the way a physician speaks and connects with patients, including how they break bad news, how they inform patients of medical issues, and other qualities. The legal profession is also a people-centric field, and lawyers often need to interact with clients in a personable and empathetic way during a representation. However, many lawyers can work on their bedside manner and not only focus on their legal arguments, but how they interact with the people they represent.
Numerous times in my career, I have seen attorneys acting too much like lawyers when interacting with clients, doling out bad news, and reassuring people who may face legal issues. Sometimes, lawyers wish to hedge their statements so that they cannot be liable if something they say turns out to be untrue. Of course, in some situations, it is important to be clear about expectations so that attorneys do not mislead clients.
However, lawyers should not let their instincts get in the way of reassuring clients and having positive interactions with the people they represent. For instance, one time earlier in my career, I participated in a conference call with a client who had just been served a demand letter. The client was extremely distraught about the whole situation, and he kept asking if everything was going to be okay. The client did not want to be sued, and of course, litigation is a daunting proposition for everyone. As a result, the client was definitely looking for some reassurances from his counsel. However, another attorney on the call kept hedging everything he said with “to the best of knowledge” or “that is my understanding” so that he left some wiggle room in case he said something that turned out to be wrong. The client was not happy with these responses, and he kept asking if everything was going to be okay.
Eventually, I stepped in and said that I didn’t definitively know what would happen in the future, but the client would receive the best legal representation possible. I even said that I would assume all of the worries the client had about his legal issue so the client could just live his life without having to think about what was going to happen next. The client seemed very happy that I spoke to him like an empathetic human being rather than a lawyer who was primarily concerned with covering his own butt, and this helped improve the representation and my connection with the client.
Another way that lawyers can work on their bedside manner is with the words they use with clients. Attorneys often use technical jargon when speaking to clients and other people involved in legal matters. Sometimes, such legalese is used because it is just easier for attorneys to convey a thought with these words. Other times, attorneys may wish to demonstrate their experience by using terms of art that are associated with the legal issue with which they are involved. However, people who do not have a legal background may not appreciate the use of words that are difficult to understand.
One time at the beginning of my legal career, I was tasked with signing in-state subpoenas connected with an out-of-state litigation matter. I had to speak to the client about the process of serving in-state subpoenas related to an out-of-state matter, and I kept referring to the documents as subpoenas duces tecum and subpoenas ad testificandum. The client was confused by my use of such terms, and she ask me to speak to her in language that was easier to understand. As a result of this experience, I never used unnecessary technical terms while speaking to clients again, and I made sure that I spoke about a case only in layperson’s terms.
Lawyers can also improve their bedside manner by connecting with their clients in a more meaningful way. Far too often, lawyers view themselves as merely having a transactional relationship with clients and do not wish to go out of their way to connect on a deeper level. However, clients are far more likely to recommend a firm to their friends and give repeat business if they have a meaningful personal connection to an attorney.
For instance, I always try to have a victory lunch with clients after achieving a major win. The occasion not only celebrates a victory, but ensures that the client has a good memory of their lawyer and can connect with their lawyer over a meal rather than in an office or over the phone. In addition, whenever practical, I try to travel to clients to deliver settlement money rather than mail a check. In this way, I can see them face-to-face and do a solid for a client that they will hopefully remember when evaluating future needs for legal services. In addition, before the pandemic, I tried to see major clients in person on a regular basis to personally discuss matters and forge a deeper connection.
All told, legal professionals should not always act like lawyers when interacting with clients. Sometimes, empathizing with clients and adopting a good bedside manner can be important to serving clients and building a practice.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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