The Language Barrier: How to Help Lawyers Listen Actively and Communicate Strategically

JD Supra Perspectives

Often, we attempt to communicate with others in our own preferred mode, while the person we are trying to reach doesn’t speak the same language... 

Attorneys are inherently risk-adverse. They are trained to be so, and in many ways, it serves them well in their day-to-day practice. However, in the art of developing new business and providing client service, the innate fear of failure can render them paralyzed in the face of certain uncomfortable client interactions. 

As client service and business development coaches in our firms, we can help our attorneys navigate tough conversations, actively listen to the voice of the client, and suggest alternative approaches to communication.

Here are three scenarios that illustrate where you can add value for your lawyers:

1. Choose the Right 'Client Service Language'


An associate knows a prospective client whom she has been courting for months; they met at an industry networking event, seemed to hit it off in person, but all of the additional follow-up has fallen on deaf ears.

Every email she sends goes unanswered, though she has offered to take her out for fancy lunches and has gone so far as to offer the firm’s tickets to a local event that is coveted and very hard to gain access to; she is getting frustrated by the lack of response, fears coming off as a pest with her repeated efforts, and is ready to throw in the towel.


Suggest that she try another mode of communication; is it possible that the prospect simply doesn’t respond well to email? Has she tried calling? Often, we attempt to communicate with others in our own preferred mode, while the person we are trying to reach doesn’t speak the same language.

A gentle change of approach can beget a prompt response.

Another consideration is whether or not the offers to connect in person, outside of work hours, don’t fit with the prospect’s lifestyle. Do they have young children, or care for a family member, therefore rendering their free time incredibly sparse and valuable?

Maybe an offer to come to her office and bring coffee, or to simply chat on the phone occasionally, would put the prospect more at ease and willing to grow the relationship further.


Anyone who has read the book The Five Love Languages knows the clarity it can lend to personal relationships. Though I don’t advocate telling your clients that you love them, the same general premise is applicable in business: not everyone communicates in the same way, and if you refuse to acknowledge the other person’s preferred mode, you end up veritably screaming at someone in French who only speaks Italian. It is not the message that is lacking; it’s the delivery. At times, positive intent can fall on deaf ears when the other person’s priorities are not identified and acknowledged. Remember to pause when communications seem askew and reassess how your counterpart hears what you are saying.

2. Write For Your Audience ... Or Don't Write At All


A senior partner loves to write, and is producing a large amount of content for the firm. However, everything he submits for publication is lengthy, dense and full of legalese. They read more like briefs than like true thought leadership pieces.

He is disappointed that his clients don’t appear to be actually reading and responding to what he is writing, though they are having no trouble finding his work because the right buzz words are buried somewhere below the fold. He is frustrated with the amount of time he is investing without a return, and is starting to grumble about how “content marketing is a waste of time.”

This reflects poorly on your team’s strategy, and is starting to garner momentum amongst his fellow practice group members.


Suggest to the attorney to break longer pieces into smaller, bite-sized posts; offer to help with the first round of edits, and act as the voice of the client in looking at the piece.

Encourage him to think of how the reader would want to consume the information: perhaps in-house counsel wants to read the in-depth analysis of the legal issues, but a business owner may only want to extract the few points that help solve the immediate problem he/she is facing.

Reinforce that the effort itself is not wasted, and that the topics are clearly relevant: it only takes a simple tweak in the approach to turn a dead end into an open road. See if the content could be distributed via webinar or video format; perhaps the human element and conversational nature of visual content would resonate better with this particular audience. 


There is no “right” way to write, but there is a need for awareness of the reader’s preferences that needs to be considered when choosing a particular tenor.

Lawyers take great pride in their writing skills, and it is often outside of their comfort zones to write in a more conversational tone instead of in a traditional legal style.

Provide data that shows how the intended audience prefers to consume information, and go so far as to ask trusted clients to provide feedback...

Beyond the style of writing, consider the reader’s attention span when looking at word count, and whether the audience prefers a particular format or medium over another. Provide data that shows how the intended audience prefers to consume information, and go so far as to ask trusted clients to provide feedback. If and when the success of these efforts changes trajectory once the suggested tweaks are made, promote the success story within the firm to encourage others to try the same approaches.

3. The Client's Problems Are the Firm's Problems


You conduct a client feedback interview with a top 50 client of the firm; another, non-relationship partner (Partner A) attends with you and helps to facilitate the meeting.

The client indicates that they are happy with the firm and the attorneys with whom they have been working - and, generally speaking, see no immediate issues that would cause them to use other representation.

However, towards the end of the conversation, the client notes that he doesn’t see a clear succession plan for transferring the work once the aging relationship partner (Partner B) moves on.

In the debrief with you, Partner A balks at the idea of speaking to Partner B about the issue, as he appears to have no plans to retire anytime soon. Partner A thinks that the inference would offend. He asks that you only report the positive feedback to Partner B.


Acknowledge the awkwardness of the impending conversation, and note that the intention of Partner A to shield Partner B’s feelings is kind.

Reinforce that the purpose of the client feedback interviews is to ensure that the firm’s top clients’ voices are heard, regardless of what they say, and enforce that ignoring the issue renders the purpose of the conversation moot.

Offer to spearhead the conversation with Partner B, and begin by stressing the “good stuff,” but then shift to note that they are thinking about the future of the company and how they can grow along with the firm. Suggest bringing a younger attorney into the fold, not to replace Partner B, but to make inroads with her contemporaries so that the relationship can continue for years to come.

Use your emotional intelligence to gauge Partner B’s reaction to the news and gently shift the approach to acknowledge his feelings, while still prioritizing the client’s concerns.


We are in a business where relationships are closely held.

For those firms who do not have mandatory retirement ages, the topic of aging out of an established relationship is dicey and can often cause tempers to flare in defense of continued relevance.

When the right approach is taken in delivering the message, the partner can see that this is not the equivalent to having his drivers’ license taken away; it is simply a plan for longevity in the relationship, planning for the second generation of relationships to be formed so that the legacy of what has been established can far outlive the original relationship.

Remember to listen actively to what is important to the client, and even if it is a tough conversation to have, find the softest way to deliver the message in order to beget a prioritization of the client’s needs.


[Jenna Schiappacasse is Director of Client Development at Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP and LMA's 2018 President-Elect for the Mid-Atlantic region. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow for her latest writing on JD Supra.]

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