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What Do Non Verbal Messages and Competency Have To Do With Each Other? Plenty.

During my travels over the years, I have been surprised at the number of times I have observed or become aware of a problematic interaction with a client and the attorney or staff person involved was completely oblivious. Let me share a few stories. During a meeting with an attorney that lasted perhaps an hour and a half, the attorney had received literally dozens of calls, many of them repeats. Clients were calling in five or more times an hour hoping to get through. Staff shared that this was normal because the attorney would only get around to returning calls when it could no longer be avoided. It seemed clients had learned that the only way to talk to their attorney was to be the one who became the biggest annoyance on any given day.

 

Here’s another one. An attorney works in a small community and has had long-lasting attorney/client relationships with a number of local individuals. These long-term relationships have allowed the attorney to develop a certain camaraderie and casual way of interacting with those clients. A potential new client was waiting in the reception area and one of the established clients walked into this area unannounced to ask a brief question. The attorney saw the established client enter, walked right up to the client and with a warm “Hello!” and a pat on the back began discussing the established client’s legal matter right in the middle of the reception area. The attorney 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 public discussion of someone else’s legal issue caused the potential new client.

 

The décor, and I use this term loosely, of a law firm I once visited can be best described as 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 their attorney as this was the norm. From all appearances nothing had been cleaned or picked up in years.

 

And last but not least, I entered a firm’s reception area where clients were present and found the space overall 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.

 

Ok, what’s the point? It’s about the value of being aware of the unintended messages being sent. There are attorneys who really don’t seem to appreciate that a number of clients will make judgments about their lawyer based upon the entirety of their experience during the course of representation. 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 kept their work place organized, how in the world can they stay on top of my legal matter?” Attorneys who take shortcuts with their email by writing informally and not taking the time to proof read 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 may hear about them. 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 to spend the money.

 

Perhaps all of the above 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, that’s the catch because 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, difficulty in being acknowledged, and unprofessional communication and behaviors taken together says something about their attorney’s competency. I am not saying that they literally think their attorney is incompetent; it’s more that they’ll conclude that the attorney has stopped caring. If it helps, look at it as half-hearted lawyering. In the end, whatever the problem might end up being, it’s going to be your fault and the entirety of the experience will simply confirm it.

 

Yes, it does take extra effort to keep offices clean, to enforce a rule concerning appropriate dress, 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 suggest that such efforts are worth it. What we’re really talking about here is professionalism. A professional presentation, or lack thereof, really does make an implied statement about your competence. So here’s my point. Don’t minimize the significance of the nonverbal messages being given to clients. Sometimes these messages speak volumes and clients will act on them if things don’t go as expected.


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As a Risk Manager for ALPS, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. is responsible for developing and delivering new risk management and CLE products and services, risk management consulting, law firm risk evaluations, and writing content for the ALPS 411 blog at www.alps411.com. In his tenure with the company, Mark has conducted over 1,000 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented numerous continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States and written extensively on risk management and technology. Mark received his J.D. from Drake Law School. He can be contacted at: mbass@alpsnet.com

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