Legal communications in the time of COVID-19 and beyond

Julia Shin Doi, Bruce Piercey and Giselle Basanta examine techniques for successful communication

Legal communications in the time of COVID-19 and beyond
Julia Shin Doi, Bruce Piercey and Giselle Basanta

For many professionals, aspects of work life such as video conferencing have gone from novel to normal during the pandemic. Though we look forward to the time when COVID-19 is just a memory, the methods of communication that we use with our clients are unlikely to return to what they were before the pandemic. For in-house counsel who want to ensure effective client communication and management, it is important to understand and apply the new, as well as the time-tested principles, for good communication.

Based on our experience, here are some principles and techniques for successful communication in these times and beyond.

Going virtual: With many –  if not most – personal interactions for business now taking place virtually, lawyers must understand the pitfalls of communication that are not face-to-face. Be aware that emails do not convey tone, so choose your words carefully; and refrain from suddenly copying people the next level up without explaining why you are doing so. Delivering bad news? Do it by phone or Zoom, privately, not by email.

Conference calls can be troublesome. Avoid dropping a piece of hot advice that no one has heard before on a Zoom call.

Here’s an example: Just before a video call with a client, you receive an email from opposing counsel but only have time to read the last line: your settlement offer has been declined, and litigation looms. On the client call, you are asked for an update on the file. What do you do? Be transparent, convey the substance of the communication but resist opining on risks and strategy. Promise you’ll be in touch in the next day or so, and take that time to understand counsel’s position. You might want to consult with a colleague before sending the response.

It’s about relationships: Information between a legal professional and client should flow both ways. Appreciate and respect the client’s knowledge and expertise. It is vital to be a good listener: ask the client for thoughts and ideas about an issue. Pose a question instead of imposing a path, and collaborate on solutions instead of delivering them as if from the mountain top. And remember to be positive!

Take a deep dive into culture: In-house counsel, in particular, can expect to work regularly with the same clients, so understanding the culture within a client’s department is critical to managing the relationship long-term. Do that, and when difficult issues arise, you have already built the foundation for a trusting relationship.

You need to be a part-time psychologist. Spend time analyzing what is going on in the client’s operational area. Have there been any shifts in roles, responsibilities or priorities, and what are the sensitivities? What do they perceive as their vulnerabilities? Does the client have ambitious career aspirations within the organization? 

Figure out who on the client’s leadership team is your liaison – that person will be key to giving you insight and advice.  

The basics will never fail you: Communications pros will tell you there are basic principles that invariably apply to almost any situation: be honest, be transparent, share bad news as soon as you get it, think about your key messages before opening your mouth or writing that email and give people a heads-up as soon as possible when change is coming. Pandemic or not, those principles are always sound.

Translation required: Lawyers often serve as translators of the law. Clients may not truly understand what you are telling them. It is important to give context. No legal advice should be given in a vacuum. It should come wrapped with an appropriate level of background; the bigger the issue, the bigger the wrapping.

What does that look like? Start with a brief background and the most relevant facts, clearly set out the issues and options. Explain all legal terms, including their impact on the story. Lay out the risk and suggest a path forward including timing of next steps. Encourage questions and feedback, and follow-up with confirmation of instructions and action items in writing.

Be aware that there can be tension between the legally sound advice and where the clients want or need to be for their own objectives and reputation. Business decisions are up to the client in consideration of the legal advice. When this happens, the message should be carefully constructed so that the clients understand the legal and financial risks, yet know and believe that you will continue to work with them to mitigate those risks.

Long after the pandemic has passed, good communication techniques will be an immense benefit to your career. COVID-19 is likely to forever change our way of doing business, and getting client communication and management up to speed now is an investment in your future. By paying attention to communication principles and techniques you will earn the trust and respect of clients.

Julia Shin Doi is general counsel, secretary of the board of governors and privacy officer at Ryerson University

Giselle Basanta is assistant general counsel at Ryerson University

Bruce Piercey is a communications consultant at Ryerson University

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