Open Bar: Communication between attorney, client is essential
Ryan Summerlin December 23, 2012
Lawyers love words, and most would say we love words that spring forth from our own mouths or pens/keyboards. The truth is that we champion our words because they are our lifeblood and, sometimes, our weapons. Each word is precious because each word can mean the difference between victory and defeat, between clarity and a quagmire that may take a decade to escape. Because attorneys innately understand the power of words, we are typically prodigious communicators. But clients may not come from a milieu that values words so highly. Thus, when talking to a lawyer, a client may feel that all of those words are simply adding up to a hefty fee. In reality, without the bedrock of communication, even the best case may crumble to the ground.Good lawyers are effective at communicating with judges, juries, witnesses and other lawyers. But the lawyers who provide the greatest service to their clients combine this skill with the ability to meaningfully communicate with the client. Clear, full and mutual sharing of ideas is absolutely critical to a successful and satisfying attorney-client relationship. The attorney-client privilege, which (with certain limited exceptions) makes communications between a client and lawyer confidential, exists precisely to encourage this frank discussion.At no time is candor more important than at the beginning stages of the representation. The truth will come out eventually, and it is better for the attorney to know the truth at the outset rather than be blindsided by it at trial. Clients have an understandable tendency to only share facts that are favorable to their side of the story. However, a lawyer cannot truly aid a client unless the full extent of the issue, warts and all, is known. This is not a one-sided process. While the client must make sure to share the full story, it is also incumbent upon the attorney to foster communication, ask tough questions and listen so that they have a grasp of the whole picture. Strategizing to mitigate the bad facts cannot be done unless they are known and digested. It is also imperative that a lawyer give the client an honest assessment of the strength of the case. In the client’s mind, there is no question that he or she is right. However, the great truth of the legal system is that nothing is black and white; everything is gray. If a dispute were really one-sided, it would not progress to the level of involving lawyers. The lawyer must, therefore, be particularly candid in explaining the weaknesses of the client’s position. This can be a painful experience, but the lawyer’s job is to educate, not to coddle. The client’s commensurate responsibility is to listen to the lawyer, particularly as to something that is difficult to hear. Informed decisions cannot be made by a client who is consciously ignorant of the potential pitfalls of the case. The client education process is tricky because the law is not always intuitive and there are often confusing or arcane legal concepts that impact the course of a dispute. A great lawyer is adept at distilling these complexities into words easily understood by the client. Again, this is not a unilateral process. The client also must be engaged and ask questions to clarify their understanding of the matter. As the case progresses, it remains critical to keep the lines of attorney-client communication open. From a client’s perspective, they are paying good money for the lawyer and deserve to be kept apprised of what is happening on a regular basis. If a client only hears from the lawyer via receiving bills, they will not have an ability to give input and will surely be dissatisfied with the experience. Similarly, the lawyer needs a responsive client in order to effectively perform. The lawyer advises the client, but the client is ultimately the decisionmaker and needs to stay informed and available.As in any intimate relationship, it takes work on both sides to keep the attorney-client alliance functioning successfully. As long as words are flowing back and forth between the attorney and the client, the obstacles to be faced will not be as insurmountable as they may seem.T.J. Voboril is a partner with Thompson, Brownlee & Voboril LLC, a local civil litigation firm. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.thompsonbrownlee.com.