Clients Are Not Lawyers

Clients are not lawyers. Seems obvious, doesn’t it?

Except that it is not always so.

Yesterday, I was negotiating a settlement. A huge part of that is conferring with the client and explaining the process. This is basic stuff which I have done countless times. The client seemed hung up on what needed to be signed and who needed to sign it. I explained it three times. I was not getting aggravated, and the client was as nice as could be, but something wasn’t connecting. The issue didn’t need to be sorted out right then as we still had not resolved the case, so I concluded the conversation figuring I would call back in a bit if I needed to do so. The client clearly understood the big picture – so the issue was peripheral, at least at this point in the process. A bit later, it dawned on me that she was confused about what a “settlement agreement” is vis-a-vis the distribution of the settlement proceeds. Easy to explain, of course.

Sometime after this call, I talked with my wife. Ann is the Chief Operating Officer of a large mental health practice and, as such, she is a fairly sophisticated consumer of legal services. Well, yesterday she was not happy about a lawyer’s handling of a matter for the clinic. Hearing the situation described, it seemed clear there was a breakdown in communications. I could see why the lawyer handled the situation that way – and, although not my area of law, I really didn’t see a problem – but Ann’s frustration was real – and quite understandable.

Concluding the call with my wife, I thought about my FTCA client. Unlike Ann, she is not a sophisticated consumer of legal services. Not even close. Of course, I knew that, and I thought I was explaining the situation accordingly. Apparently, I had not, just as the clinic’s lawyer had failed to do so with a learned client.

As lawyers, we need to understand that our language and the world of what we do is not the same as our clients, even very smart and educated ones. What seems easy to grasp for us may not be so easy for the client. What is obvious to a lawyer may seem ridiculously obtuse to a non-lawyer.

The moral to the story: Communicate clearly. Explain the situation carefully and accurately. Never lapse into jargon. Even a basic term like “settlement agreement” likely needs a description. Make sure they understand what you are telling them and how it fits in the big picture of their matter. Be patient. Clients always deserve to be informed fully and our job is to make that happen.