In his classic rock masterpiece, Space Oddity, singer David Bowie tells the story of astronaut Major Tom. As Major Tom’s capsule orbits the Earth, he is having trouble communicating with Ground Control. Major Tom needs clarity, assurance, and understanding. Meanwhile, Ground Control simply orders Major Tom to “take your protein pills and put your helmet on – can you hear me Major Tom?”
Like Major Tom and Ground Control, lawyers and clients often struggle to communicate. Given the mutual need for effective dialogue, why is it that clients often feel underinformed? Why is it that lawyers often misunderstand their client’s goal? Communication breakdown leads to frustration on both sides. Protocol can help.
What Is Protocol?
Effective communication with your lawyer starts with establishing protocol. Protocol is a simple understanding between the lawyer and the client as to how and when communication will take place. Once protocol is established, communication is streamlined, costs are reduced, and frustration subsides.
Is Voice The Best Choice?
How does the client prefer to discuss legal matters? Does the client prefer a phone call or perhaps an old-fashioned in person meeting? Is secure email the best mode? Does the lawyer have a Zoom account? Establish a method of communicating that best suits you and your legal project. Clients who express a preferred method of communication up front are less likely to get frustrated about the flow of information. Establish this protocol and confirm it in writing.
May I Call You Back Later?
Hours are important, too. Is the lawyer agreeable to cell phone calls on nights and weekends? Does the client have a standing conflict due to other obligations? Communicate when you will be free and when you won’t. Establishing protocol as to the timing of phone calls makes for a better working relationship.
Do You Take Reservations?
Lawyers communicate more effectively when they can prepare for a meeting with their client. Effective communication can begin with scheduling a time to speak with your lawyer. Sometimes this can be done directly through the lawyer. Other times it can be done through the lawyer’s assistant. Find out in advance when the lawyer is able to speak with you about your case. Then, reserve a block of time that will allow you and your lawyer to thoroughly cover the topic. Once that meeting takes place, focus on resolving the specific topic set for that day’s discussion. Avoid revisiting the past or speculating about the future. Get today’s task checked off the list.
Are We Goal Oriented?
It is good protocol to establish the goal of the project at the outset. If it is a litigation matter, then perhaps the goal is to incentivize a settlement. If the project is the sale of a business, then the goal may be to negotiate a purchase price five (5) times EBITDA. Whatever the goal is, come to a clear understanding of that goal with the lawyer. Then, write down the goal and use it in your decision making.
Why Not Make It A Group Chat?
The attorney-client privilege allows lawyers and their clients to share information and preserve confidentiality. It enables both parties to speak candidly throughout the legal process. However, the attorney-client privilege can be waived through careless communication. Allowing another person to participate in conversations between the client and the lawyer can result in a waiver of the privilege. So, protocol should include the client only contacting the lawyer when the client can speak privately. Likewise, email communication between the client and the lawyer should take place over a secure, private email address. Your protocol should preserve the attorney-client privilege to allow a free flow of information.
How Much Will This Cost?
Protocol should include an estimated budget for the legal work. Much like a home renovation project, a legal project can be difficult to price at the outset. Nonetheless, working on a budget together will enable the client and the lawyer to understand the financial realities early on. Then, protocol should include reviewing the written budget periodically and making adjustments based on changed circumstances.
Sadly, David Bowie passed away in 2016. The stars look very different today. Nonetheless, the lessons learned from Ground Control and Major Tom remain. Lawyer and client communication is essential to a successful working relationship. Establishing protocol is a great first step.
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