Legalese is like a foreign language to a client: listening to unavoidable terms of art, many in Latin. It requires a higher education to understand. As attorneys, we are tasked with breaking down complex concepts so that our clients understand their options well enough to be empowered to make an informed decision that is best for them.
ABA Model Rule 1.4 Communications states: “(b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”
The rule sounds simple, but what does that look like?
What to Consider about Your Client
Comment 6 to Model Rule 1.4 states, “[o]rdinarily, the information to be provided is that appropriate for a client who is a comprehending and responsible adult.”
Did you know the average American reads at the seventh- or eighth-grade reading level? Reading level is the ease of reading a book, not relative to its content. Attorneys should be mindful of this while imagining the client walking through their door.
In some practice areas, you may directly represent children. Make sure to define your role with the child so they know what it means to be their lawyer. Depending on their age, a young child may not know why they need a lawyer or understand their situation. The younger your client is, the more difficult it is for them to understand the legal system. Remember, the child is your client, not their parent. It’s important to make sure the child, as well as the parents, understand this. There may be few situations where a child can feel confident that an authority figure will not discuss what is said with their parent or guardian. You want the child to know this is one of those situations. While communicating with your child client, consider their age, education level, and maturity.
Representing Non-English Speakers
If your client’s first language is not English, ask which language they are most comfortable communicating with you. Sometimes, clients are more comfortable communicating in their first language when they have that option, even when familiar with English. The ability to have an interpreter and speak in their first language removes a barrier of communication that may help obtain more information from your client because they do not have to struggle to find a comparable word in a different language. Use an interpreter or translator as needed. When you need an interpreter outside of your office, ask them to sign an agreement explaining confidentiality.
Methods for Clear Communication
Understanding and Patience
Sometimes, providing information appropriately means understanding other cultures or that your clients’ lived experiences are different from yours. Then, you can find ways to build trust with your client.
As attorneys, we know that we must arrive early for our court hearings or be on time for discussions with opposing counsel. We are disciplined to return a missed call from a client or opposing counsel within a short and reasonable time. But, your client may need reminders to respond or multiple touch points before calling back to provide the answers you need to draft documents or move forward in your representation.
Patience may be as simple as remembering to schedule short follow-up meetings rather than having several long meetings that may feel draining to your client.
Active listening builds trust and shows empathy and respect to your client. While listening to your client, don’t show judgment in your responses or expressions. Repeat what you heard so your client can confirm the details. During a discussion with your client, pause frequently to ask if they have any questions. When your client knows you are listening, they’ll feel confident in you.
Be alert to how your client feels and reacts if the conversation involves describing tough experiences. If you encounter difficult situations, allow your client to take breaks.
In conversation with your client, choose simple words rather than complex words. Your client should not be challenged to understand you because of your chosen vocabulary. Your client will be comforted and reassured when they understand your concepts. They will feel confident they have the information they need to make the right choices for their situation and be empowered to make informed decisions.
Whether speaking or writing a letter or email, keep your sentences short. Refrain from adding multiple clauses into sentences. Keep your sentences to the length of a breath. Then, even while reading, your client can take a natural pause to absorb the information you are conveying.
In Short . . . Keep It Short
It may take longer to decide how to say what you need to with fewer words or syllables, but conveying your ideas concisely will save time while interacting with your client.
Clear communication levels the imbalance of power a client may feel before approaching an attorney. You will gain your client’s trust. Your client will feel empowered and confident in you, leading to a better, more effective attorney-client relationship.