The Art of Effective Communication for the Family Lawyer
This article was first published on the Law Society’s Family Section on 13 March 2017
Jannette Brimm, training director at Skillssanctuary Ltd (formerly Skillsology Ltd), offers insight into the value of effective communication within a family law practice.
Effective communication with colleagues is a valuable skillset to develop, and while it will not produce a utopic family law firm, it enables us to better relate to our clients, both internally and externally, by helping to build valuable relationships that will support us in reaching our professional and personal goals.
Are you working on your working relationships?
As a lawyer, it’s strange to think of your colleagues as clients; they don’t pour out their emotional hearts to you like your external clients, or come to you for legal advice on domestic abuse, or talk about their matrimonial meltdown. But your colleagues (your internal clients) are those you work with every day and they are equally fundamental to your firm’s success.
Your internal client is every single colleague who assists you to serve your external clients. They are integral to your firm’s value chain, revenue, billable targets and meeting the emotional needs of your external clients. This requires partners, lawyers and support staff to proactively talk to each other.
But effective communication is more than just talking. It is listening, helping, asking, being patient and offering advice, and as in any family, it is about each of us being mindful about the significance of how we relate to our colleagues.
Referrals, recommendations and repeat business
Client referrals and business recommendations are based on the fact that when people like people, they help them – your name and the firm’s name jumps to the top of everyone’s referral list. Your colleagues will speak highly about you, praise your accomplishments, introduce you to clients and pass on your details.
Developing a good rapport with your colleagues, knowing little things about their interests and social pursuits – such as which football team they support or TV shows they watch – together with sharing work, referring clients, and delegating cases will pay dividends. Once you cultivate a reciprocal communicative style of working within your team, it becomes a strategic internal marketing and cost-saving initiative.
Family clients and profits are being eroded in today’s environment of ever-changing family court procedures, legal aid cuts, and online DIY divorce proceedings. It makes good business sense to develop a valuable and professional working relationship with your colleagues: remember, any act of kindness could help increase your following, strengthen your brand, and produce a lifetime of business allies.
How well do you know your colleagues?
What do you really know about your colleagues? When was the last time you asked how they were; how their families were; how their supportive spouses were; how their children are doing in school? When was the last time you had a chat with them over a cuppa?
Many family lawyers fail to see that working relationships are like their clients’ familial relationships; different personalities, emotions and personal agendas interact. Knowing who you are working with helps establish a culture of not only work, but support, trust and respect.
Your co-workers do not have to be your best friends, but there is something to be said for spending down time with co-workers once in a while. You’ll learn things about them you would never learn at work, and create positive bonds that can assist your working day.
Lack of communication is damaging for any business, and as your family law cases often reveal, it is destructive for growth and relationships; it’s the same for your legal team. Unfortunately, we are not taught how to communicate; it’s something we learn from family, friends and colleagues, and when we get it wrong, the fallout can be costly for everyone involved – as family lawyers are all too aware.
If your family practice is committed to providing clients with an unparalleled level of service in a timely and cost-effective manner, you need to work together at all levels, from the mail room assistant to the managing partner. Engaging effectively with your legal teams and support staff ensures your targets are more achievable and commercial success is more likely.
How you talk and interrelate with colleagues matters. What do you do when a colleague asks for your help so that they can close out their time; what do you say when someone from another department asks for a contact from your contact list; how do you thank the print room staff who deliver your bundle of documents or your secretary who stays late from her own family to help you prepare for court?
Good communication is the glue that helps you deepen your connections with others and improves teamwork, decision-making and problem-solving. It enables you to communicate negative or difficult messages without creating conflict or destroying trust.
Six tips for improving your communication skills
- Connect with colleagues on a personal level where possible and when appropriate. Ask about their family, hobbies and interests. People favour people who listen to them.
- Make eye contact – it shows you are listening with interest and paying attention.
- Don’t be afraid of humour – it goes a long way in an area that is fraught with emotional issues.
- Listen to your colleagues; it’s just as important as listening to your clients.
- Share information – this is necessary for effective communication, which is a two-way transaction.
- Appreciate those you work with.
More About the Author
Jannette Brimm specialises in corporate business skills (aka soft skills). After being approved by the SRA in 2013 to deliver training to solicitors, Jannette Brimm set up Skillssanctuary Ltd (formerly Skillsology Ltd), the London based business skills training company exclusively for solicitors and managing partners.
Working in the legal sector for 27 years, Jannette Brimm has provided IT, administrative and business support to solicitors at law firms including Dentons 大成, Maples and Calder (Cayman Islands), Watson Farley and Williams, Wedlake Bell, Eversheds and Mayer Brown.