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GPSolo eReport

GPSolo eReport July 2023

Brush Up Your Communications Skills and Become a More Effective Lawyer

Eleanor Kay Southers


  • Attorneys are called on to communicate at a high level in all types of situations, yet they receive very little instruction on the dynamics of successfully putting words to their thoughts.
  • Better listening is the one thing that all attorneys could sharpen for better communication.
  • Improve your verbal communication by adding appropriate nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, and gestures.
  • Know your audience and formulate your communications with them in mind.
Brush Up Your Communications Skills and Become a More Effective Lawyer
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

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As attorneys, we often think that we are highly skilled in communication in all areas of our life.

Certainly, it is true that attorneys are called upon to communicate at a high level in all types of situations. They must converse with a diverse group of people. Attorneys have clients, other lawyers, and other parties in a case who need clear communication. In addition, there are numerous times in daily life when the attorney wants to be heard or even influence a situation. Yet, attorneys are given very little instruction, clarification, or understanding about the dynamics of how to successfully put words to their thoughts. In law school, the closest experience lawyers receive is how to argue a case through the use of evidence, logic, and clear conclusions. Try using that method on a four-year-old or a teenager!

How Well Are You Really Communicating?

At this point, it would be worthwhile to gain some information about how satisfied you are with your present level of communication. Consider the questions below:

  • Do you ever leave a conversation feeling that you haven’t been understood?
  • Do you feel uncomfortable talking to particular groups of people (for example, people holding certain political beliefs)?
  • Can you be easily understood by younger adults?
  • Can you be easily understood by older generations?
  • Do you have trouble communicating with people you disagree with?
  • Do you ever get feedback from clients saying they haven’t understood you?
  • How about judges? Do you ever feel that you could have explained yourself better?
  • Have you ever been told that you interrupt people often?
  • Do you avoid public speaking?

Your answers to these questions should help you decide whether you are in need of a “brushup” of your communication skills.

Where to start? Communication encompasses several ways to interact with your audience, some of which you may have forgotten, and a review might be helpful.

Verbal Skills and Active Listening

Language is the primary tool for communicating because it contains rules, symbols, and sounds to deliver ideas to your listeners. This is why someone speaking a foreign language can have a difficult time and might resort to gestures to be understood. Body language is also a form of communication and is often overlooked by attorneys. However, the primary tool that solves many of the challenges is listening.

Better listening is the one thing that all attorneys could sharpen up for better communication. Interrupting because you want to get your point across is certainly counterproductive but happens frequently. This is a difficult habit to break as it is important to get your point across, and oftentimes, anxiety can set in as you try to deliver important information but aren’t being heard. A solution might be to start with some active listening. You might say something like the following:

  • Wait a second, I want to make sure I’m hearing you correctly. I believe you said ___.
  • What you are saying is so important that I want to make sure I’m hearing you correctly. I believe you said ___.
  • Let me interrupt you so I can make sure I understand what you said. I heard you say ___.
  • I hear you saying ___.

Once they respond, you can segue into what you want to say. Be sure you wait and make certain they agree with what you believe they said. If there is some confusion, you can clear it up right then.

Now is the time you now want to do reverse active listening. After you have said (as succinctly as possible) what you want, you need to kindly inquire what they heard. This sometimes backfires on you when the person thinks you are accusing them of being stupid. I have actually had this happen, so beware! However, if you demonstrate how well it worked when you did it, they usually are not too afraid.

Although all this takes some work and rehearsal, active listening can be your very best new skill to communicate more effectively. If you can persuade a friend to practice it with you, it can build confidence.

You will want to make sure you are using appropriate other verbal skills such as clear vocabulary, grammar, and the right tone. If you want to comfort someone, be careful that your voice is low and soothing. This will allow for further interaction. This would seem like such a simple rule, but it is surprising how many times attorneys don’t remember it. I once heard an attorney in court shouting at his client to “just shut up.” She didn’t, and it would have been more effective had the lawyer whispered his directions in the client’s ear in a quiet calm voice, maybe including a “please.” Emotions sometimes run high and can lead to an increase in volume and tone when not useful.

Nonverbal Signs

Nonverbal signs are a valuable asset. They enhance language with the addition of facial expressions, body language, and gestures. There has been a lot of discussion lately about how to spot lying. Much of it centers on noticing if the verbal language is in sync with the body language. The website PsychCentral gives us some clues here:

When people are in the middle of a lie, their facial expressions may show you. Look for flared nostrils, lip biting, rapid blinking or sweating. These changes in facial activity signify an increase in brain activity as a lie begins. Some people will get a slight flush to their face when they are lying, so look for blushed cheeks as anxiety may set in.

Of course, it can also mean that the person had a bad lunch!

Back to making our verbal language better with nonverbal signs. First, you need to determine your venue. If you are talking on the phone, then the nonverbal is restricted to tone, pauses, and any other sounds that could help you. Zoom, FaceTime, and other technology that allows us to see the person we are speaking with has greatly increased our ability to communicate. Best of all is face-to-face communication or, for the very best, full person to full person. Here you can use all types of gestures and body language to support your words. Check what body language and nonverbal signs you are using with your language by doing this in front of a mirror. A friendly family member can also help to pick out the times when the cues are inconsistent.

Knowing Your Audience

Another important component is knowing your audience. The audience can be one person or hundreds of people. The key is to learn how to do it instinctively. Like any other life lesson, you start by doing this exercise mindfully. For instance, you want to talk with your significant other about where to go on vacation. First, decide what your thoughts are concerning this discussion. Do you have any essential ideas that you want to communicate? Now, ask yourself if there has been any previous experience on this subject with this person. Is a soft approach the wisest? Not, “I want to go to Hawaii!” Or do you open by asking this person’s opinion or some other open-ended questions? Because you probably have been with this person for some time, knowing your audience of one should give you a boost to this approach.

Exploring large audiences would seem to be much harder because of the diversity of people. Not necessarily so. Again, start by whittling your talk down to the two or three main points you want to get across. Now, pick out five likely different attendees by looking at the listed names. Ask yourself, what might they have in common? How might they be different from each other? For instance, say you were planning to give an MCLE presentation to a group of attorneys. Why did these five attorneys decide to attend? Maybe they just need the units? Maybe they are interested in the content? What other reasons could there be? Maybe they chose your presentation simply because it’s cheap to attend?

An important opening, not used often enough, is to take a quick survey of your audience. The essential element is to ask the correct questions. Use the magic number of five to determine how you will proceed. I recall doing this for an MCLE presentation to about 30 worker’s comp attorneys. I started out by asking them how long each had been a comp attorney. As they raised their hands and told me, I gave each of them a “title.” First was a “baby” or newbie attorney. Next came a “teenage” (four years or more in practice). Then an “adult,” and last, a “senior.” One young man who was there with his mother told me he was in law school, and I gave him the title “in the womb.” This not only broke the ice but let me know what I needed to address in the talk.

Once you have some understanding of your audience, you will want to make sure that you address their concerns in simple language. Learning how to be brief but succinct is a great advantage in upping your communication skills. Just taking the time to refine your content down to three, four, or the magic five elements will prove invaluable to you. Eventually, you will learn to do this intuitively. With practice, you will be able to anticipate the sum of what you want your audience to know—even before you start with language and all the other new skills you just learned.


Now, go back to the top of this article and ask yourself that list of questions again. If you want to increase your ability to communicate more effectively, set up a modest task and go for it! Keep doing more tasks until this becomes second nature. You may never know if the four-year-old understood you, but I’m sure he or she loved the attention!