Effective communications in law firms can enhance client experience
By Kirsten McMahon, Associate Editor
Open communication not only establishes trust and confidence among team members, it also allows lawyers and legal staff to work together cohesively and enable better client service, says Catherine Moffitt, an associate at legal practice management specialists Cosgrove Associates.
“If a team is communicating properly and effectively it will help avoid errors or missed deadlines,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com. “Ultimately, working with trusted colleagues increases client satisfaction and leads to more business.”
One of Moffitt's roles at Cosgrove is to work with firms to facilitate better firm-wide communication as well as between its team members.
When it comes to micro-level interpersonal communication, she says lawyers tend to work autonomously. While they may ask a colleague for some advice here and there, there’s a tendency to operate in silos.
“They don't really connect all that often with other lawyers, particularly if they are in a different practice group,” Moffitt says. “They may not share their opinions, expertise and knowledge with each other — I don't think it comes naturally and firms don’t always foster this type of collaboration.”
She says partners’ or performance meetings are an opportunity to create a space for lawyers to share opinions as well as points of friction, encouraging cross-selling and collaboration between associates often produces positive bottom line results.
Moffitt says it’s not just lawyer-to-lawyer communication that may need a tune-up, it could also be how a lawyer deals with his or her support staff and vice versa.
“If we see a lawyer and assistant team struggle in their communication styles, it's just going to trickle down to everybody else,” she says. “When Cosgrove holds meetings with a firm, we listen to each party's take on the relationship and help identify the best methods of communication. We try to get them face to face and give options that work well for everyone.”
No matter the situation, showing empathy, being open-minded, listening instead of talking all of the time, being flexible and providing feedback are all standard ways to improve interpersonal communication, Moffitt says.
Managing expectations can also be a great way to improve interpersonal conflicts. Neither party should make assumptions, and they may need to sit down and clarify roles and expectations periodically.
“If a lawyer comes running in and asks, ‘Where's that letter I asked you to do a week ago?’ and the law clerk did it but put it off to the side, rather than where the lawyer was expecting it to be, there will be chaos. Idiosyncrasies can add up and lead to toxic miscommunication in the office and with clients,” Moffitt says.
"The law clerk and the lawyer may have completely different expectations on administrative processes," she adds.
While some people aren’t going to change their personalities, teams can work together to better understand one another.
“It could be the way a lawyer is standing over someone's desk, or it could be the tone of voice an assistant takes,” she says. “There are all of these different ways of communicating, and we work with team members to make sure they're meeting deadlines, gaining each other’s trust and maintaining a decent working relationship.”
When it comes to macro-level, firm-wide communication, Moffitt says Cosgrove works with management to understand the direction, vision and leadership style of the firm.
“We’ll dig into how management expresses or communicates their policies and protocol and Law Society of Ontario compliance,” she says. “Sometimes those things get ignored, so we try to bring forward information about new laws and policies and give best practices for relaying that messaging to the rest of the firm.”
Moffitt says working with team members at the micro level may also reveal bigger issues at the macro level.
“We might bring certain information forward to the management team and suggest they clarify their expectations or that they should deploy some kind of message on a new policy that the firm must adhere to,” she says, sometimes this will help a firm establish or maintain their direction and vision.
“All of these communications issues — both micro and macro — can affect a firm’s reputation in the public eye,” Moffitt adds, therefore it is important to pay attention and manage them.