The Importance of Clear Attorney-Client Communications. Using Siri as Your Guide.
I was using Siri recently to dictate a text, and Apple’s intelligent personal assistant just couldn’t get my message right. It couldn’t have been may strong Southern drawl, could it? Siri thought that my “Motion to Quash” was a request for websites about squash. I was surprised at the number of squash recipes available online, but that wasn’t helping me communicate my point to my client.
This situation reminded me about how clients must feel when we communicate using highly technical legal jargon. Like Siri, they may have trouble understanding what we’re trying to say. Unlike Siri, they may not feel comfortable professing ignorance and asking for clarification. Indeed, we receive many calls from people explaining the advice given to them by a previous lawyer, and the client cannot even pronounce, much less understand the meaning, of the terms used by their previous lawyer. This breakdown of clear communication does negatively impact client relationships, and sometimes it could make us liable if our communication is not adequately understood or misunderstood, but acted upon incorrectly by the client.
There are several reasons why we may feel the need to communicate using technical legal jargon, none of which are easily justified:
- We want to demonstrate our years of legal training and expertise.
- It’s easier – no need to shift communication styles for different audiences.
- We’re just showing off – they are paying to hear impressive legal terms anyway.
How Should Attorneys Communicate with Clients?
Regardless of our intentions, the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct define how we should be communicating. Georgia Bar Rule 1.4 (Communication) provides that communication should be “appropriate for a client who is a comprehending and responsible adult” – not a lawyer. The commentary further explains, in technical jargon, that the client should be able to participate intelligently in decisions regarding the representation, and give “informed consent” to those decisions. A 2011 revision of Georgia Bar Rule 1.0 (Terminology) defines “Informed Consent” as a decision by the client ONLY after receiving adequate information and an explanation of risks and alternatives.
Here are some general communication guidelines to follow, regardless of your clients’ qualifications or education. Even when other attorneys require our expertise, they may not understand the terminology associated with that expertise.
- Provide communication and commentary in plain English – why not?
- If more technical terminology is required, include an explanation or translation.
- If you can’t succinctly explain one technical sentence with one simple phrase or sentence, rewrite it.
- Remind clients that they should feel comfortable asking for clarification or definition.
- Ask the client to confirm – in their own words – the meaning of important communications.
So before you communicate the need to file a Petition for The Writ of Cert, remember that, like Siri, your client may interpret this as “pet edition for the #@*! on your skirt.” Take the time to think about your communications, and ask yourself how your client will understand them. Taking a few extra minutes to make sure your attorney-client communications are clear could make a world of difference and save hours of trouble in the future.