Many doctors are judged not only on their medical knowledge, but also on their “bedside manner” in dealing with patients. The bedside manner is usually defined as the way a doctor speaks and connects with patients, including the way they spread bad news, inform patients about medical problems, and other characteristics. The legal profession is also a people-centered field, and attorneys often need to interact with clients in a personal and empathic manner while serving. However, many lawyers can work at the bedside and focus not only on their legal arguments but also on how to deal with the people they represent.
Many times in my career, I’ve seen attorneys act too much like attorneys when interacting with clients, spreading bad news, and reassuring people who may face legal issues. Sometimes lawyers want to back up what they say so they can’t be held liable if something they say turns out to be untrue. Of course, in some situations it is important to be clear about expectations so that lawyers do not mislead clients.
However, lawyers should not allow their instincts to calm clients down and have positive interactions with the people they represent. For example, once in my career I took part in a conference call with a customer who had just received a letter of request. The client was extremely upset about the whole situation and kept asking if everything was okay. The client did not want to be sued and of course litigation is a daunting proposition for all. As a result, the client was definitely looking for reassurances from their attorney. Another attorney on the call, however, backed up everything he said with “to the best of my knowledge” or “that’s my understanding,” so that he left margin in case he said something that turned out to be wrong. The customer was not satisfied with these answers and kept asking whether everything was okay.
Eventually I stepped in and said I didn’t know definitely what was going to happen in the future, but the client would get the best possible legal representation. I even said that I would take on all of the client’s concerns about their legal issue so that the client could just live their life without thinking about what would happen next. The client seemed very happy that I spoke to him like a sensitive person rather than a lawyer who mainly concerned himself with covering his own bum, and this helped improve the representation and my connection with the client .
Another way lawyers can bedside work is through the words they use on clients. Lawyers often use technical jargon when speaking to clients and others involved in legal matters. Such legal language is sometimes used because it is easier for lawyers to use these words to convey a thought. In other cases, attorneys may want to demonstrate their experience using artificial terms related to the legal issue they are dealing with. However, those without legal background may not appreciate the use of hard-to-understand words.
Once, early in my legal career, I was hired to sign subpoenas in connection with an out-of-state litigation. I had to speak to the client about the process of serving subpoenas relating to an out-of-state matter, and I continued to refer to the documents as subpoenas duces tecum and subpoenas ad testificandum. The client was confused by my use of such terms and asked me to speak to her in a language that was easier to understand. Because of this experience, I never used unnecessary technical terms again while speaking to clients, and I made sure I spoke about a case in only layman terms.
Lawyers can also improve their bedside manners by engaging with their clients in more meaningful ways. Far too often, lawyers see themselves as just a transactional relationship with clients and don’t want to go through the trouble of connecting on a deeper level. However, customers are far more likely to recommend a company to their friends and do repeat business when they have a meaningful personal connection with an attorney.
For example, I always try to have a winning dinner with customers after making a big win. Not only does the occasion celebrate a victory, it also ensures the client has a good memory for their lawyer and can connect with their lawyer over dinner rather than in the office or on the phone. Also, whenever practical, I try to travel to customers to deliver settlement money instead of mailing a check. This way I can see them face to face and make a solid contribution to a client that I hope they will remember as they assess future legal services needs. Also, prior to the pandemic, I tried to see important customers in person on a regular basis to speak in person about matters and to create a deeper connection.
All in all, lawyers shouldn’t always act like lawyers when dealing with clients. Sometimes it can be important to empathize with customers and have a good bedside manner in serving customers and setting up a practice.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service law firm based in New York and New Jersey. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website that discusses how he paid off his student loan. You can reach Jordan by email at [email protected].