Formerly the ANU Legal Workshop

Developing your client communication skills

Moira Murray

I am a trial lawyer. Matilda says that at dinner on a good day I sound like an affidavit.
Mario Cuomo

By the time you finish your law degree and are about to enter practice you are very adept at thinking objectively and distilling a problem down into its parts and applying the law to it. You can follow all the practices and procedures without having to think too much about it all. You can talk the talk and know all the jargon. However, you will most likely have had very few opportunities to learn how to listen to and talk to the people whose legal problems need your expertise - clients.

An important skill you should develop is empathy, in other words, your ability to see things from your client’s perspective. It is important to remember that clients are not just a set of facts or a problem to be solved. Clients find it very hard to think objectively about their matter and they do not understand the law or its many practices and procedures or its jargon.

What can you do to develop empathy? One of the easiest (and hardest) things to begin doing is listening. Really listening - not sitting there waiting for the person talking to you to finish while you are thinking of what you want/need to say next. To really listen you have to consciously listen to and think about what the other person is saying to you. When they have finished talking to you rephrase or summarise what they said to you and ask questions to check you have understood what they said. Practice your listening skills as often as you can.

Another important skill is being able to explain to your client what is happening in a way that they can understand. Develop your ability to write and speak in Plain English. Your clients write and speak modern English – as their lawyer you should too! Try and avoid the legal jargon where you can, or at least explain what it means. Drop the archaic words and use their modern alternatives. Google will throw up any number of websites dedicated to helping you do this.

The law and its processes are extraordinarily confusing, intimidating and stressful for the client who comes to see you. A good lawyer recognizes this and takes the time to try and ease their client through the process. Put another way - clients rely on your skills to draft an affidavit but you don’t need to talk like one!

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Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  Director, GDLP/Page Contact:  Program Coordinator, GDLP