Communicating with clients: three lessons from the pandemic

REUTERS/Roman Baluk
REUTERS/Roman Baluk

October 25, 2021 - An attorney-client relationship, like all relationships, requires communication. It is not controversial to write that lawyers are not the best communicators. Many of us may be persuasive writers, or even convincing arguers, but on a personal level we tend to be stoic, distant, cold, unemotional, and sometimes just unlikeable. These traits seem to transfer across the legal profession, from law professors to corporate lawyers, from judges to junior associates. Perhaps the legal profession, and its need for logic and risk aversion, attracts these wallflowers, droids, and Macy's mannequins. I'm not casting stones here- I'm guilty of these traits too.

Pre-pandemic, at least lawyers could attempt human interactions in physical spaces, like offices, conference rooms and courtrooms. We could look our clients in their faces and describe their legal options to them. We could listen to them and help them make decisions. We could also consult with our colleagues, who were often nearby in other physical spaces.

During the pandemic, we all lost the ability to communicate with our clients in the traditional ways. Our methods, like in-person intake, face-to-face meetings, and negotiations and hearings in physical spaces, were mostly replaced by Zoom and similar technologies. Our tools, talking to people, discussing legal issues together, and literally standing beside our clients, were taken away. And the collegiality and spirit of working with and beside comrades on shared issues and goals, celebrating achievements and sympathizing over losses, seemed to disappear.

In this transformed state, did communication with clients suffer? In my experience, during the pandemic, lawyers got better at communicating with their clients. Here are three ways:

First, we started texting with clients. Many of us realized that emails are too formal, too slow, and often go unread. Emails from lawyers tend to turn into legal briefs or office memos -- TLDR (Too Long; Didn't Read). And phone calls meant endless games of phone tag. Through SMS (Short Message Service) and MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), clients would send photos of documents, messages about the factual details of their legal issues, and often just check in with us.

Texting also allowed us, for the first time, to be available to our clients outside of the 9-5 hours of our physical offices. Ironically, although we couldn't meet our clients in person, we connected with them as a friend or family member would: in simple, bite-sized pieces of relevant information. Texting with clients allowed plain language to break through attorney-client communications. It allowed clients to see their lawyers as ordinary human beings, who talk (and text) like they do.

As a caveat, note that many lawyers text clients on their personal devices (guilty!), and any IT security professional would caution against doing so because of the risk of data breaches. Use a safe texting platform like Signal or one that is approved by your firm's IT.

Second, the frequency of our communications with clients and with each other increased. Because of texting and because of the ease of use of Zoom and other platforms, we were able to chat with clients more often. Clients were able to share information as it arose.

For example, we got updates in real time as the facts of our clients' cases unfolded. Lawyers were able to set up times to talk and send and receive communications as needed. This sounds so obvious and simple, but it isn't. It's a common scenario -- before the pandemic, a lawyer would call a client to set up in-person meetings -- often calling numerous times. Sometimes, clients would be unable to make the agreed upon meeting because of other events in their lives. So the lawyer would call to reschedule, and the cycle would begin again. For whatever reason, traditionally, lawyers have been reluctant to discuss important issues in ways other than in-person, so all key contact would occur in formal settings like offices and courts.

Increasing the frequency of communications also helped bring down the barriers to trust that often exist between lawyer and client. For example, during the pandemic, many of our clients learned to trust us because we would respond to their messages and be able to give them legal guidance in real time. Also, frequent communication also helped take away the needless formality that exists between lawyer and client. Each communication, because there would be more of them, would carry less import and more appropriate gravity.

Another caveat here is that allowing more frequent communication may also bring down important boundaries between lawyer and client. Clients may reach out on non-legal issues, develop a reliance or expectation of friendship or dependency. Lawyers may also be sacrificing their own personal time in order to allow more frequent communication with their clients. Thus, lawyers need to find balance between increasing the frequency of client communication and setting appropriate professional boundaries.

Third, eliminating in-person contact as a default restores a power balance to attorney-client relationships. Recently, I perused a hornbook on client interviewing in the NYU law library, and it cautioned an attorney to "not act as a God" or badger or bully a client. Unfortunately, in the traditional, pre-pandemic setting, we forced our clients to meet us in our offices or in court -- on our turf. Clients would sit across from us, at our desks, looking at our law school diplomas or admission certificates, often having waited for an hour or more to talk to us. Consequently, our advice and counsel seem more valuable and persuasive than it probably should be. Clients feel a deference toward us that we don't necessarily deserve.

Today, and going forward, our default method of communication should be whatever works best for the client. They shouldn't be asked to travel long distances or wait hours to speak with us. They should feel free to communicate with us as they see fit, and when it is convenient for them. In this way, attorneys and clients can be on more equal footing, and attorneys can truly act in their clients' best interests.

In sum, the pandemic broke the traditional attorney-client communication model. Let's call that a win.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Sateesh Nori is the Attorney in Charge of the Queens Neighborhood Office of The Legal Aid Society, in New York City. His Twitter handle is @sateesh_nori.