Thomson Reuters

Why Legalese Translates to “Bad News” for Your Law Firm    

Let’s get right to the point: A law firm that doesn’t make an effort to understand its clients might not have them for much longer. Not only are there plenty of other law firms who’d welcome new business, but thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever for a consumer to find them. That means a client who isn’t happy with his or her counsel has a very few obstacles to switching to someone else. Indifference to (or ignorance of) client wants and needs could be fatal to your future.

The complimentary playbook “Seven Things You Don’t Know About You Clients And What You Can Do to Serve Them” examines contemporary client preferences in detail, but among the findings, one jumps out in a big way. In the Thomson Reuters Consumer Client Experience Survey, a stunning 92 percent of the 510 U.S. consumers who were surveyed said they valued “a lawyer’s ability to discuss the case in an understandable way.” Even “showing a genuine interest in your well-being,” which you might think would top the list, came in second with 87 percent.

If you stop and think for a moment, this makes sense. Clients wouldn’t have hired you if they didn’t trust your education and experience. They don’t need to be made aware that you’ve got the bona fides—they already know you do. And if they’re facing a legal issue, they probably are apprehensive and want to come to an understanding of their position without having to decipher what you’re saying. A little metaphorical hand-holding, it seems, might go a long way. In the medical field, this (or something closed to it) is referred to as “bedside manner” and frankly, it says a lot about the legal profession that it has no comparable term.

So, what’s the problem with legalese? At a high level, it’s a four-part issue.

  • Legalese leaves many clients feeling confused, concerned and weary because they don’t know what’s being said. That isn’t what they came to an attorney for, and it isn’t an experience you should want them to have.
  • Dense legalese can also warp a client’s sense of value. If a client doesn’t grasp what’s been shared, he or she might not understand why the final bill was what it was. Remember, the client already knows you went to law school and have experience, so there’s less of a need to impress than you might think. Practicality, clarity and a meeting of the minds are more important.
  • Not listening to clients when they say they want plain language makes it less likely any given client will come back for a future legal need. Beyond that, it puts you at risk for having unhappy clients giving negative feedback about you in the marketplace. No one needs or wants that.
  • Lastly, a law firm that relies on legalese won’t necessarily be bad, but it will only ever be “good enough.” To put it another way, a given attorney can keep speaking in legalese and his or her practice won’t crumble, but he or she will stumble through client dissatisfaction and turnover and never really thrive as a business.

Now, ridding your vocabulary of legalese isn’t going to happen overnight. With a slow and steady approach, though, it can be done. Here are three techniques that will start you off on the right foot.

  • Just when you’re tempted to launch into a very technical explanation, pause for three full seconds and use that time to mentally simplify what you were about to say. It might feel odd to you, but it won’t register as unusual to the person to whom you’re speaking. It will just come across as you thinking before responding.
  • If you catch yourself dipping in to legal terminology (and you will), follow it up by saying “In other words…” and then providing a translation of what you just said. This has the dual advantage of demonstrating that you’re an authority and that you can break down what you’re talking about into plain English.
  • End each conversation with a clarifying question. “Based on what I have said here, do you have any questions?” is a good one, and so is “Does the path I’ve outlined make sense?” Not only does this tacitly tell the client it’s okay to ask questions, but it makes you appear more empathic and client-focused.

If you still aren’t convinced that clients aren’t interested in hearing legal-speak, try this: For just one new client, make a very real effort to speak plainly and simply, and at least try out the techniques mentioned above. You might be surprised at how this changes the lawyer-client relationship, and you might find yourself warming up to an anti-legalese approach very quickly. Let our new playbook, “Seven Things You Don’t Know About You Clients And What You Can Do to Serve Them” be your guide. Download for free today.

About Law Technology Today

Law Technology Today
Law Technology Today is the official legal technology blog from the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center (LTRC). Law Technology Today provides lawyers and other legal professionals with current, practical and innovative content developed by some of the leading voices on legal technology.

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