Lawyers are highly motivated service providers who seek client approval and referrals. Lawyers must understand exactly what clients value. Feedback usually comes from informal conversations and client surveys, but generally lawyers are not inclined to probe the deeper questions about the lawyer-client relationship and its multifaceted levels and intricacies. The reverse is also very important: how can clients better understand their lawyers?
Karl Pillemer, a prominent gerontologist and professor of human development at Cornell University, realized that although he had been an “expert” on aging for his whole career, he had never really listened to the wisdom of his patients. For five years, Pillemer and his team interviewed more than a thousand people over age 65, asking them what they had learned about how to live a good life. What stood out most for Pillemer was that gerontologists spend too much time telling their patients how to lead their lives and not enough time listening. Pillemer’s insights prompted me to explore what lawyers can learn from their clients.
Over the past several years, my wife, a practising psychologist, introduced me to the Reflecting Team — an interview process that grew out of ideas derived from both psychology and anthropology.
The Reflecting Team works to develop mutual respect and understanding between parties that are usually on opposite sides of a power differential — client/therapist, board/staff, customers/service providers, and agencies/funding organizations, to name a few. This process embodies the concept of honouring and acknowledging the speaker’s ideas in a way that is quite different from the normal sequence of speaker/applause/questions, has a deep impact on the speaker, and elicits information not available through other means.
It occurred to me that the Reflecting Team approach would be extremely valuable in bringing about a more profound understanding between clients and lawyers while at the same time honouring the clients. I decided to organize a Reflecting Team seminar for my firm. My wife has conducted many such sessions and agreed to collaborate with me on this experiment and be the interviewer. I refer to it as an experiment, since as to our knowledge it has never been used with lawyers and their clients.
Generally, the Reflecting Team consists of two separate and distinct groups. In many cases there may be a power differential between the groups. In the case of clients and lawyers, each has its own power, though perhaps less obvious and more nuanced than with other groups. Lawyers and clients must be able to listen to and respect each other for a successful relationship.
The Reflecting Team strives to create a more uniform playing field by using a four-staged process. An interviewer who is experienced and skilled in the process is needed.
In Step 1, the interviewer asks the clients questions intended to elicit constructive responses. The lawyers are the audience; they listen but do not participate.
In Step 2, the lawyers, with the assistance of the interviewer, reflect on and discuss what they heard from the clients that resonated with them. The clients, sitting separately, become the audience of the lawyers.
Step 3 again involves the clients. With the lawyers once more as the audience, the clients reflect upon what the lawyers discussed and found interesting.
Step 4 is an open discussion between the clients and the lawyers.
Our Reflecting Team
For our team, I invited two of my clients, one in his 60s and the other in his 40s. Both are experienced, sophisticated businessmen, and have worked with a variety of business, litigation, and other lawyers. They are university-educated, astute, good communicators, and genuine.
I invited all lawyers in my firm to attend and eight accepted. There was a good age demographic and both business lawyers and litigators attended. I specifically invited two lawyers from the executive as I thought the session might influence future management decisions on marketing and client development. The time for the session was limited to 1 ½ hours.
The Reflecting Team model requires preparation. Before the session, clients are asked what they would like to hear from the lawyers and the lawyers asked what they want to know from the clients. Frequently these are things people have always wanted to know but never had the opportunity to ask. The responses were incorporated into the interview questions.
Examples of what the clients wanted to talk about: following or not following lawyer advice, how to handle conflicts, expectations regarding outcome, electronic communication, billing conversations, how they choose a lawyer, and response time.
Lawyers wanted to know: how to bring up the topic of fees, delivering bad news, new media preferences, and minor but festering things that bother clients.
A couple of days before the seminar, each of the lawyers was given a brief written description of the process, its purpose, and structure. Immediately before the start of the seminar, the lawyers met with the interviewer who again explained how the session would be conducted.
Step 1: The client interview
The client interview started off with general questions about the clients’ need for lawyers, putting the clients at ease. Then the interviewer asked what are the most important qualities the clients look for in their lawyer. The question is open-ended, encouraging the clients to talk about personality traits, communication, and chemistry, not merely legal expertise. The questions are asked in a very positive way. For example: “Which of those qualities in your lawyer have produced the best results overall?”
Even questions which may have a negative component are asked in this way. For example: “Lawyers have to communicate so many things to their clients — risk and how to minimize it, fees, possible outcomes, bad news. What are some examples of the best ways you and your lawyer have communicated?”
Additional questions included: the advantages and perils of electronic communication; whether the clients always took their lawyers’ advice and if they did not, how the disagreement was best resolved; value for cost; how to deal positively with mistakes; referrals to outside lawyers; and conflicts.
For Step 1, the interviewer instructed the lawyers to listen in a particular way — being curious and not judgmental or critical; instead, noticing what captured their attention and what linked them to the clients’ experience.
The interplay between the two clients, each having a very different perspective, was fascinating to everyone.
Step 2: The lawyers’ reflections
In Step 2, the clients then became the audience to the reflections of the listening lawyers. The interviewer moderated the conversation. The lawyers talked among themselves keeping the clients’ words at the centre of the conversation.
Questions were to start with: “I was wondering about . . . ,” “What stood out for me . . . ,” or “What I want to know more about . . .”
We noticed that some of the lawyers tended to dwell on details rather than reflecting on the more general comments of the clients and it would be preferable for the lawyers to have revealed more about their thoughts on what the clients said.
Step 3: The clients’ reflections
The clients listened carefully to the conversations among the lawyers and were clearly surprised by some of their comments. The issue of professional courtesy garnered much interest. The clients interpreted it as being in the interests of the lawyer rather than of the client. They were impressed by the expression of lawyers’ commitment to the clients’ welfare.
Step 4: Open conversation
There was an animated discussion in the last 15 minutes of the session. Each of the lawyers and clients expressed their appreciation for participation.
The results of the Reflecting Team model used in this setting were fascinating and illuminating.
The two clients, though working with lawyers in their respective businesses for an aggregate of 40 years, never had the opportunity to express their personal views on the legal process to a group of lawyers, being truly heard or experiencing lawyers speak about them respectfully in their presence. The clients felt “honoured” to be part of the process and now had far better insight into the attitudes, concerns, and stresses faced by lawyers in active practice.
The lawyers were enthusiastic about the process. Not only did they hear new perspectives from the clients, but were able to discuss these with each other. None of them had ever heard clients speak very specifically about subjects rarely touched upon in private conversation between lawyer/client or in client surveys.
• Clients do not expect perfection from lawyers, but they do expect honesty and immediate communication of problems.
• The most important attribute of lawyers is communication skills; poor skills will lose a client.
• It is important to have a personal relationship, not purely a business relationship.
• In general, clients look at value received for billing rather than amount.
• Clients expect lawyers to come up with ideas and solutions; a client will be dissatisfied if he leaves a meeting feeling that the solutions have come from him rather than the lawyer.
• Web sites are not of great value in attracting clients; they are used to get biographical information on lawyers for the most part
The foregoing may seem obvious, but the impact of the process on both clients and lawyers, and therefore the result, is truly unexpected.
A deeper connection was created between the attending lawyers and the clients. Despite my 40 years in practice, I gained a new understanding of the nuanced and complex relationship that exists between clients and lawyers. My understanding became explicit rather than assumed and it is my belief that all lawyers can benefit enormously from the solution-based Reflecting Team model.
Raymond D. Schachter is associate counsel with Alexander Holburn Beaudin & Lang LLP in Vancouver. He is a business lawyer and has practised in many areas of law for over 40 years. His current interest is in legal ethics and the lawyer’s role in complex transactions. Beverley Kort is a registered psychologist in private practice in Vancouver. In addition to working with individuals and couples, Beverley does a variety of workshops in the community including stress management and using the Reflecting Team for profit and non-profit organizations.