Disconnects in lawyer/client communication often lead to unhappy clients or even the loss of their business. But the State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast has good news—better relationships with clients can be achieved! Hosts Tish Vincent and JoAnn Hathaway talk to Dr. Noelle Nelson about her book, “Connecting with Your Client: Success Through Improved Client Communication Techniques.” Dr. Nelson offers simple techniques for connecting with clients of all personalities and temperaments and teaches lawyers how to be an ally, even if they disagree with their client. Later, they also discuss communication within law firms and offer strategies for creating supportive, respectful workplaces.
Dr. Noelle Nelson is a respected psychologist, speaker, author, and trial consultant who provides trial/jury strategy, witness preparation and focus groups to attorneys.
State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast
Connecting with Your Clients
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice with your hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network.
Take it away ladies.
Tish Vincent: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am Tish Vincent.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I am JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Dr. Noelle Nelson, an internationally respected psychologist, author and seminar leader, join us today as our podcast guest to talk about connecting with your clients.
I would also like to add that Dr. Nelson has authored a book with that same title and it is published through the Law Practice Division of the American Bar Association. Should you wish to access that publication, a link to it will be provided in our podcast show notes.
So Dr. Nelson, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Dr. Noelle Nelson: I will be happy to, thank you.
Well, first of all, I am actually a trial consultant, that’s how I use my psychological skills, if you will. I work primarily with attorneys in civil litigation and I do that all over the United States. So I have the great joy of rewriting opening statements, figuring out case themes, running focus groups, preparing witnesses, writing voir dire questions, and pretty much everything that I think of as pre-production to a trial. And that is my life.
Tish Vincent: That’s very interesting. Tell us, the book, ‘Connecting with Your Client’, how did that come about? Why did you feel the need to write that book?
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Well, that came directly out of my experience as a trial consultant in working to prepare witnesses for deposition and trial. Because I learned an awful lot about how they felt about both their lawyers and their experience with their case. And what I discovered is that most witnesses/clients didn’t have any problems with the actual lawyer and the professional expertise, if you will, of their attorney, but they often had problems with the quality of service.
And what really bothered me is I was watching fine, fine attorneys lose clients, not because of their expertise again, but because they weren’t delivering service in the way that a client wished or expected.
I think somewhere along the line attorneys didn’t realize that clients are a lot more sophisticated now and they have a plethora of high-level attorneys to choose from. So the distinction then becomes one of okay, what service am I getting, how am I being respected in this, as opposed to just how good an attorney are they in terms of expertise.
Tish Vincent: Very interesting.
JoAnn Hathaway: You say in ‘Connecting with Your Client’ that it really all starts with the initial interview. Is there anything you can offer with regard to some tips on how attorneys can conduct that interview so they actually get what they need from the case and the clients feel safe and can trust them?
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Yes, absolutely. First of all, a lawyer’s attention, if you will, is usually focused on the case itself, but in that initial interview what the client needs and wants is for the attention to be focused on him or her. And so the best way to do that is don’t split your focus. In other words, during the initial interview do not accept phone calls, do not respond to text, do not mess with your email, etc., just really be attentive, square to the client, and the easiest way of demonstrating that in body language is maintain good eye focus; in other words, look at him or her directly.
And listen, listen, listen, listen. Your ears are so very important. As far as I am concerning, ears, brains, and mouth. And attorneys being the professional in the room are often going brain, mouth, maybe ears, and that’s not the direction that the client needs.
So the first technique, if you will, is simply eye focus. Secondly is, be genuinely interested in what they have to say. Now, a client will say an awful lot of stuff that you don’t need for the case, you just don’t need it, it’s irrelevant, it has nothing to do with anything, but it has a lot to do with the client’s perception that you are respecting him or her, and that’s really, really important. So you have got to have patience and let them talk.
It’s kind of the same objection that people have when they go to a physician for the first time is, I didn’t get to say a word. Well, the client really needs to say a word or more than a word.
Now, another technique which is going to sound very simplistic, but is very effective, is use their name. A person’s name is the single-most important word in the English language or whatever language they speak to him or her. So use their name and start by being formal. So it’s Ms. Smith or Mr. Jones, until the client says, it’s Mary or it’s Jack, whatever. Use their name and use it several times so that they know that you know who you are talking to. So they feel like an individual, like they matter, and it’s not just the case.
Be sure, this is the third technique, if you will, be sure to show that you are listening by head nods, up and down, or uh-huh, that kind of just uh-huh; it’s called nonverbal communication, but it is somewhat verbal. And take notes, take notes. Few things impress people as much as you writing down something they said.
Now, frankly, I do not care, as your trial consultant, I don’t care if what you are writing down is your laundry list, what I care about is that the client’s perception is that you are making a note of something they have said and therefore they are important.
All those techniques are geared towards one thing and one thing only, showing the client that they are as important as the case itself and that’s how you do it.
Tish Vincent: Sometimes there is a disconnect between what the client sees as important and what the lawyer sees as important in a case. What can a lawyer do to make sure that both client and lawyer are on the same page?
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Well, this goes back a little bit to what I was saying about the initial interview is you want to be client-centered. In other words, you need to gather information as to how the client sees the case and you do that with very specific questions and they are open-ended as opposed to close. They are questions that cannot be answered by yes or no, and I will give you, if I may, a couple of examples?
Tish Vincent: Uh-huh.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: So for example, what are your greatest fears regarding the outcome of this matter? Now, to you, the attorney, that may be one thing, which is we lose, but to the client it could be something else, like my business will fail or my reputation will be gone, or whatever, right?
Another type of question is well, all things considered, what do you expect to have happen both in terms of the outcome and how the case will proceed? So you as the attorney, you don’t have a clue how the client expects the case to go or what they think is involved. And rather than either assume that they know or just impose your information on them, you will do much better if you ask, you just find out what you expect to have happen.
Now, the key to these questions is they start with the word what or the formula, if-then; the word they stay away from is the word why. Why pins people to the wall. Well, why do you think you may lose your business? No, not why, but what is it about this that makes you think you might lose your business? Why is just one of those words you want to try to avoid while you are trying to get information from your client and while you are trying to make sure that you are all on the same page.
The other is the use of the word and, not the word but. So when your client responds with something or other and you are going, I don’t know what will happen, you don’t go yeah, but, you go I hear you and, and then you go on with whatever your next point is. The word but is again one of those words that pins people to the wall. So when you are trying to see if you are all on the same page, you don’t want to pin anybody to the wall, put simply.
JoAnn Hathaway: Dr. Nelson, I know in your book you have a chapter dedicated to handling different types of clients, for instance, handling the angry client, handling the negative client, a bullying client, and there is quite a long list here, which is very, very helpful. Can you speak to how you might determine what type of client is coming to your door and any special techniques for that?
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Sure. It’s not very difficult to determine what type of client is coming to the door, because the angry client will come in, in a rage. The seductive client will, just by their very manner of walking, whether it’s male or female, be using their sexuality, if you will, as a ploy. The bullying client will pretty much tell you what your business is in loud and vociferous terms.
The anxious or insecure client will be hesitant to say a word and may have trouble even walking into the office. I mean these are very stereotypical giveaways, if you will. And if you just want to practice as you walk through your daily life is try to nail in your mind what this person shows as their major, if you will, personality trait.
So it’s not — I of course give many different categories because of the different kinds of clients that walk through your door, but it’s pretty easy to suss up what kind is walking through your door. And even if you go wrong, you are not going to go terribly wrong, because if you confuse an angry with a bullying client, the techniques on how to handle those two categories are not very different. If you are confusing an insecure client with an anxious client, again, the categories aren’t very different. So the ways of dealing with said client are not going to be all that different.
Would you like me to perhaps talk a little bit about how to handle the angry or the bullying client, one of those?
JoAnn Hathaway: That would be wonderful.
Tish Vincent: I think our listeners would really welcome that.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Well, let’s take the angry, because that frankly is the most common and for many people the most difficult type of client to deal with. An angry client is, as we said, easy to recognize. They come in. They are generally ticked off about everything, just everything, doesn’t matter; the traffic, you, their wife, their husband, whatever, and they let you. They are not shy, that’s for sure, an angry client is not shy.
So the first thing to do is to simply nod, you are respecting where they are at. The worst thing you can do with an angry client is to say the following, relax, or lighten up, or calm down, because they will be at you, worse. You see, an angry client needs to know that you have understood, appreciate, and acknowledge their anger. You don’t have to agree with it. See, that’s the really important part right there, you have to acknowledge it, not agree with it.
So for example, if the angry client comes in and says I can’t believe there is another continuance here, I am so fed up with this, that and so forth. And you would be nodding and you would say continuances are frustrating, absolutely, and, then you are going to go on once you have said the word and. But you have respected and acknowledged your client’s anger.
So often people faced with anger want to get rid of it as quickly as possible, but the only way to get rid of it oddly enough is to acknowledge it and from there you can use the word and as your bridge to go on.
Now, the second thing is don’t take it personally. It doesn’t matter if the client walks in telling you what kind of an expert of the lead that you are, don’t take it personally. Angry clients are angry people. Unless there has been a specific situation which triggered that anger which has to do immediately and personally with you, and you will know it, you will know it, because you will have caused it, but absent that, and that is really quite rare. Angry people are angry people everywhere. They are angry at the grocery store, they are angry at the gas station, they are angry with their children, they are angry in your office, they are just plain angry, that’s what they do, so don’t take it personally.
And that would be first and foremost what to do and then you can use your word and as a bridge to, and, we have the good fortune to have a new judge because of this continuance or and this is going to enable us to do blah, blah, and the word we or us helps to show the angry client you are an ally, whatever place they are in, you are an ally. You don’t agree with whatever they are angry about, but you are still their ally, you are still a we; we can do this because of that. Makes sense?
Tish Vincent: It does, it does. It makes me want to ask another question, which is sometimes individuals come into a lawyer’s office and they are angry immediately or they become angry in the conversation, in consultation because the law is not what they thought it would be or what they think it should be, and you can get mired down in these conversational circles of trying to explain it to them and that doesn’t seem to go very well. So I wonder what your —
Dr. Noelle Nelson: I wouldn’t bother.
Tish Vincent: Okay.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: I wouldn’t bother, because if you try to explain something to someone who is already convinced of the opposite, you will never get there. They will give you right back.
Tish Vincent: Yeah, right.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: So the best thing to do is absolutely acknowledge their frustration with it, which is, the law can be absolutely confusing and seemingly contradictory, you are right. I mean give that — that’s true, it is true, you can agree with that.
Tish Vincent: Yeah.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: So you can give them a you are right.
Tish Vincent: It is true.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: People love a you are right, but you’ve done it legitimately. See, that’s the thing, you don’t want to be angry artificially, like, yeah, that may be true, no, that’s not going to serve. But yeah the law is often a contradictory lesson. Yeah, we have to deal with it all the time, so yeah, and here comes your solution and we are going to blah, blah, blah.
Tish Vincent: Yes.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: And I’m not laughing, the situation is so absurd because people do try very hard and very genuinely to explain to clients. Well, you know, this law was promulgated and blah, blah and it was because of this code and that code and since then there’s been this change and that, but it doesn’t do any good. It just wears you out.
Tish Vincent: Yeah.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: So it doesn’t —
Tish Vincent: It doesn’t help, no.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: No.
Tish Vincent: Yeah, in your book and your work you also tackle some of the management and office issues that can cause client frustration; can you explain some of those and what can be done to relieve that frustration?
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Sure, if I had to give it one word it will be the word “surprises.” Clients love surprises and surprises come in the following form. They can be in the form of a change of venue, in the form of a change of staff, a new associate joins the team, or you sub out some of the work to somebody else, just normal stuff in the world of lawyering, but to the client it’s a surprise, and then there’s the favorite which is the unexpected building item. It doesn’t matter if it’s 25 cents for a photocopy. If it’s a surprise the client will not be happy.
So, that is if you will, we can give hundreds of examples. They all come under that heading of a surprise. So what the fix there is don’t allow there to be surprises in the sense of you have a change of venue, you will know it before the client does. Therefore, you communicate that, you take charge of that piece of the conversation and say we’ve had a change of venue, this means that instead of being in San Bernardino County we’re going to be in Santa Monica whatever. You tell them and then you tell them why, and then hopefully find a benefit so you can use your word “and” and give them a benefit.
But the important part is, oh, now they know, it’s not a surprise. Same thing with if you choose to sub out some work to another attorney is you let them know. I’m giving this to attorney so-and-so because they are eminently qualified to deal with this particular issue or they know the judge, or whatever it is that your reason. But give them a reason that’s logical and don’t let it be a surprise because what clients really, really don’t like is to show up at court and some stranger sitting on the bench next to them.
Tish Vincent: I can see that.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: It’s like who are you and what are you doing in my case. Yeah, so clients do very, very well as long as it’s something that they know about upfront. And that applies to every category you can think of.
JoAnn Hathaway: Dr. Nelson, I have heard from individuals before when they’ve approached prospective attorneys with a matter that what happens is they go into a firm they meet with a managing partner, and then lo-and-behold they find out as you have indicated that several other individuals may be associates and clerks are actually handling their matter more so than the attorney who they interviewed and they thought that was the individual who was going to be handling their matter and they’re thinking why do I even bother with the interview.
So if that is the case if they’re going to be several individuals to include secretaries and support staff and paralegals and other individuals that they actually introduce them at the time of the initial interview so there are no surprises with that?
Dr. Noelle Nelson: They can but sometimes the managing partner doesn’t even know who exactly, don’t know the primaries on the case. But they may not know who exactly is going to be assigned to various pieces of the work. So the best approach in my opinion is to start out by saying, you know, I am in-charge of the overall of your case, I am the one who sees to it that the right work is done by the right associate or what that means is that, for example, Mr. Smith will be handling the mm-hmm part of your case and Ms. Jones will be handling the mm-hmm, and I will introduce you to them as we proceed on down the road.
We also have our legal assistants, I mean, in other words explain but always make sure you as managing partner are as primary on the case that you are in-charge of the overall, you have an eye on everything, you will be supervising everything, and if Mr. Client/Ms. Client has a complaint, an issue or concern please direct it to me, the managing partner and make sure you respond to those e-mails and phone calls.
JoAnn Hathaway: I see, that’s helpful.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Because that’s how you do it.
Tish Vincent: That is helpful and I wonder attorneys that buy the book and try to implement your ideas do you give suggestions on training their office staff or the associate attorneys in these same ways of approaching things?
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Oh absolutely, absolutely, staff is so important. A good attorney is only as good as his or her staff because frankly they shoulder off a lot of the work. So yes and what my experience has been is that if a client walks into a firm where most of the staff or certainly all the staff that are working on his case know his or her name, address him by name, say hello when they pass him in the hall, whatever, it adds up a lot in their favor.
Tish Vincent: Now they feel connected with then —
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Exactly.
Tish Vincent: — by the staff as well as the attorney, yes.
JoAnn Hathaway: I have also found in working with firms that support staff can be extremely helpful in helping the attorneys in the firm, keep a pulse on their clients and what’s happening because oftentimes they are on the front lines answering the phone and so they know the demeanor of the client, if the client sounds angry and sometimes clients in my opinion tend to share more with support staff than they will with the attorney. Do you have any comments on that or possibly agree with that as far as if a client is angry or disgruntled with some service from the firm?
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Well, as we mentioned at the top of the podcast that’s how I came to write the book. In other words I’m not staff in the sense that I’m not employed by a one firm but I run around the country and I’m in and out of firms all the time and I’m always dealing directly with the clients. So I will tell the attorney, oh, you know what, you’ve got a problem with Ms. Jones or with Mr. Smith because of X because you are absolutely correct, they will tell persons such as myself, outside consultants or support staff often more than they will the attorney.
Or a support staff is sometimes just a little bit more sensitive to a client’s disgruntlement because they just are, they are just kind of more in tune with that sort of staff than the attorney who is really involved in the legalities and the codes and case history and all the rest of the stuff that goes into it.
Tish Vincent: Yeah, that’s what the attorney is thinking about and maybe not noticing the client as much as the staff can notice.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Correct.
Tish Vincent: That’s very interesting.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: And as an attorney I would never disrespect my support staff. I would encourage them, you hear something from a client that you think I need to know, you tell me and be sure to listen.
Tish Vincent: And connect with your staff too.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Totally.
Tish Vincent: I think sometimes I hear that in my day-to-day work that staff can feel like the attorneys are short or rude or demanding and not listening to them as much and I think they have to keep that connection going so that they get the feedback.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Yes, and interestingly enough, that relies on the magic of three words actually, “please” and “thank you”. If when you ask your legal assistant, secretary or paralegal whoever for something if the first word is “please”, and when they hand it to you, give it to you whatever your word is “thank you”, you will be amazed that how far that goes in making staff feel respected.
Tish Vincent: So true! It doesn’t matter how busy you are, you can remember those two words I think.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Yes, an eye-focus also works like a charm, whereas when you say please and you actually look the person in the eye, as you say it doesn’t cost you anything, it takes a nanosecond and it makes all the difference rather than just handing a paper with your face in the desk and not even saying “please”.
Tish Vincent: Yes.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, wonderful. We are coming into the end of our show, Dr. Nelson, is there anything you’d like to add in closing before we wrap up?
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Well, just like it’s so very important for attorneys to remember that clients rarely complain about your strategy, or your expertise, but they do complain about not being involved in the process. So by using some of these techniques you both respect them, keep them involved, and in that way you really do keep both your client and your case.
JoAnn Hathaway: Wonderful! We’d like to thank our guest today, Dr. Noelle Nelson, for a wonderful program.
Tish Vincent: Dr. Nelson, if our guests would like to follow up with you how can they reach you?
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Well, the easiest way is to go to my website because all the contact information is there and the website is simply www.noellenelson.com.
Tish Vincent: Thank you Dr. Nelson for being our guest on the podcast today. This has been very interesting topic.
Dr. Noelle Nelson: Thank you Tish and JoAnn.
Tish Vincent: This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I am JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I’m Tish Vincent. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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