Are You Giving Your Clients Non-Verbal Cues About Your Competency as a Lawyer?

Are You Giving Your Clients Non-Verbal Cues About Your Competency as a Lawyer?

The number of times I’ve observed or heard about a problematic nonverbal interaction with a client (to which the involved lawyer or staff member was completely oblivious) probably wouldn’t surprise anyone.  After all, who hasn’t walked away from an occasional conversation knowing they haven’t been heard, been treated in an unexpected negative way from time to time, or occasionally felt uncomfortable upon entering a room?  It happens, and when it does an impression about the interaction is formed.  That’s a problem, particularly if the problematic interaction occurred with a potential new client, current client, or even a referral source.  This leads me to ask if nonverbal messages are something worth worrying about.  As I see it, you bet they are.

Perhaps a few examples are in order to demonstrate why.  I remember visiting a lawyer whose staff literally took dozens of phone messages during our 90-minute meeting, many of which were repeat calls.  His clients were calling in five or more times an hour hoping to get through. Staff shared this was commonplace because this lawyer would only get around to returning a call when doing so could no longer be avoided. In short, over time clients would start to figure out that the only way they could get their lawyer to respond was to be the one who became the biggest annoyance on any given day.

Another memorable situation occurred while I and a potential new client were sitting in the reception area of a small firm located in a rural community.  The subject lawyer had been practicing at this firm for years and thus had a number of long-term attorney/client relationships within the community. As a result, the lawyer had developed a certain camaraderie and casual way of interacting with these folks.  While we were waiting, one of this lawyer’s long-term clients walked into reception hoping to have a quick question answered. The lawyer happened to see the client enter and immediately walked right up to the client.  After a warm “Hello!” and pat on the back he began discussing the established client’s legal matter right in the middle of the reception area. The lawyer did this because he knew the established client wouldn’t be concerned about discussing the issue in this public space. What was missed, however, was the extreme discomfort the potential new client was feeling by being allowed to overhear a discussion of someone else’s legal issue.

One firm visit I will never forget involved experiencing the décor (and I use this term loosely) of a law firm that might be best described as “old dusty attic storage.” Signs, boxes, files, books, old furniture, you name it were strewn about throughout the firm. A walk down the hall to the conference room was like navigating an obstacle course. Clients were treated to this delightful experience every time they met with one of the firm’s lawyers as this was the norm. From all appearances, nothing had been cleaned or picked up in years.

In contrast, I once entered a firm’s reception area where clients were present and found the space to be welcoming and well maintained. What wasn’t was the receptionist. This young woman was slovenly dressed, had her feet on the counter in front of her, and was reading a paperback while chewing away on a wad of gum. I kid you not. I was forced to announce myself in order to be noticed and it was abundantly clear that she was bothered about having to put the book down and do her job. The clients who had arrived ahead of me had received a similar welcome. Their polite smiles and head shaking as I took a seat made that perfectly clear.

Of course, these examples are but a few.  Poorly or rudely written emails, an outright dismissal of a client’s thoughts or ideas, allowing for multiple interruptions during a client meeting, bills that provide limited to no information, and regularly allowing people to wait in reception for long periods of time are additional examples of nonverbal messages lawyers sometimes send that can all too easily result in a problematic interaction.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make.  It’s worth taking a little time now and again to think about the nonverbal messages you are sending during your day-to-day interactions.  Hopefully, more than a few will be positive messages, but if no thought is ever given to the messages that are being sent, some nonverbal messages may actually be saying something you never intended to say.

Think about it.  When a client needs to be the one who screams the loudest in order to have a call returned the message is clear. Clients, as individuals, are not important. Unkempt office space and cluttered desks makes some naturally ask “If these lawyers can’t keep their workplace organized, how in the world can they stay on top of my legal matter?” Lawyers who take shortcuts with their email by writing informally and not taking the time to proofread fail to appreciate that certain recipients may respond to the poorly written email by thinking “Wow, this guy isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.” Other clients who happen to overhear another client’s name or a discussion about someone else’s matter can’t help but wonder what other clients might be hearing about them. In fact, my own initial response to the slovenly dressed receptionist was to conclude that her employer couldn’t afford to hire anyone who would be competent as a receptionist or simply didn’t care enough to spend the money.

Perhaps all of this is of little concern if every legal matter taken on resolves quickly, cheaply, and with the best possible outcome for every single client. Of course, we all know how often that happens. From a client’s perspective, when things don’t go quite as planned the mind’s going to start to ask what’s going on. It’s not much of a stretch for some clients to conclude that a disheveled office, challenges in being acknowledged or affirmed, and/or experiencing unprofessional communication and behaviors are indications of their lawyer’s competency.  I’m not saying they’ll always literally think their lawyer is incompetent; it’s more that they’ll conclude their lawyer doesn’t really care. If it helps, look at it as halfhearted lawyering. In the end, whatever the problem might end up being, it’s going to be your fault and the entirety of their experience will simply confirm it.

Yes.  It does take extra effort to keep offices clean, to enforce a rule concerning appropriate dress (and financially compensate enough to account for that requirement), to continue emphasizing the importance of confidentiality, and to insist upon courteous, civil, and professional behavior from everyone in the office at all times. Nevertheless, I strongly want to emphasize that such efforts are worth it. What we’re really talking about here is professionalism. A professional presentation, or lack thereof, does make an implied statement about your competence. Don’t minimize the significance of the nonverbal messages being given to clients. As much as some might wish otherwise, nonverbal messages speak volumes and clients will often respond accordingly.

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Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 550 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.