LISTENING is a vital part of the lawyer-client contact meetings. If the lawyer does not listen carefully to his or her client, he or she is likely to miss parts of the story told and untold. And it is important for the lawyer to know the whole story to give the best advice.
It has been said that the best way to understand someone is to listen to them. This observation has been by sociologists in most relationships: romantic, personal and professional. In order for the lawyer to get to know the client, and understand his or her client’s needs, the lawyer will listen to him or her. The lawyer needs to understand what is significant to the client; his or her feelings based largely on his or her use of words, actions and inactions. The purpose of listening to the client is to get the story – the whole story; understand what the legal problem is and then eventually solve it.
Listening, active listening means that the listener gives the speaker his or her full attention. The listener pays attention to and observes tone, body language, content and mannerisms. The listener does not merely receive the words on the surface; he or she goes deeper – attempting to discover what lies beneath the words of the speaker.
This is not singular to the lawyer: the lawyer must listen to the client, and the client must listen to the lawyer. Each client may have his or her ideas on possible ways to solve his or her problem(s). The client should always remember that the lawyer is trained to assist in his or her legal matters and consider the lawyer’s advice and information very carefully. The lawyer will usually present different options and possibly recommend one in particular. For simple matters, the lawyer may have an effective and timely way to resolve the problem, and ultimately the client will benefit from the lawyer’s education, training and experience.
An excellent listening technique used by lawyers in their contact meetings with clients is to pause before responding to the client’s words. It is a pragmatic way to be a better listener. It gives the lawyer the opportunity to observe the client, reflect on his or her words, and depending on the client’s response to pause, to determine the way forward.
On the other hand, a lawyer may prefer to ask short questions during the narrative to direct the client to key aspects of his or her story. Clients could get off point, or be providing extensive but unnecessary background or information which the lawyer will eventually filter out. Although this is usually very useful in terms of providing a context in which the client needs legal advice, it is also necessary to assist the client in terms of what the lawyer needs to solve the client’s problem(s).
Another appropriate listening technique that lawyers use is to paraphrase what the client has said in his or her words. This demonstrates that the lawyer was listening attentively, understood what was said; and was able to reproduce the salient points in the story. It also allows the client to confirm what he or she said to the lawyer was properly conveyed. In other words, the client can check that the lawyer understood the story in its totality. The lawyer will paraphrase the story briefly, using an approachable voice and follow the paraphrasing by some open-ended questions.
The lawyer will listen actively to the client. He or she would usually make notes – to act as a memory aid for the client’s file and to efficiently question the client on any gaps of information given. The client should relay all relevant information to the lawyer; this is very important in determining the way the lawyer will advise the client(s) on the way forward.
Social scientists have indicated that active listening is becoming a lost art of communication in our fast-paced world. Therefore, it is important to remember to slow down and listen carefully; it matters – it strengthens the relationship between the clients and the lawyer as both have been heard, listened to and understood.
Ms. Trudy O. Glasgow is a practising attorney at the law firm Trudy O. Glasgow & Associates, a court-appointed mediator and author in Saint Lucia, Vice President of the Bar Association of Saint Lucia (and has also taught law at University level in the UK)*
This column is for general use only, for advice specifically for your case, please see your lawyer.
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Next week: Is a contingency agreement a good idea?