Does your firm have a language gap?

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Published on 5/10/10

Lawyers have a language all their own, and sometimes its purpose seems to be to obscure meaning rather than to facilitate it; however, other disciplines that work in law firm staff positions also have their professional jargon that may or may not translate well for lawyers.

Some time ago I read an article in the journal of the Legal Marketing Association that stated the organization's new definition of marketing: "Marketing is the activity, set of institutions and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners and society at large."

That's hardly an example of clarity, and perhaps it illustrates why too many lawyers are reluctant to undertake marketing initiatives.

"Define the clients you want, and develop strategies to reach them" is a better description.

Information technology is another potential area for miscommunication. On the whole, lawyers and IT folks communicate well enough. But when they don't, it's because they use similar words and ideas that mean different things to each.

Take the example of using computer technology in discovery. Here the responsibility is on the lawyer to tell the IT person the rules of the game, what they're looking for and what needs to be put aside.

When it comes to hardware and software, again, it's the responsibility of the lawyer to educate the IT person on what capabilities are needed. The IT person needs to be clear with the lawyer what can and cannot be done to address the requests. It's a common process in life: active listening to make sure the other person understands what is being said.

Of course, sometimes lawyers may be clear in communicating what they want but totally off base in wanting it. Such issues often come up in human resource management.

Years ago, when I was a chief operating officer of a mid-sized firm, I was approached by several partners who said the firm's receptionist was super bright, super good and needed to be advanced — definitely a good HR challenge.

But their idea of advancement was moving the receptionist to the data processing department. Aside from the fact that that would be perceived as a demotion, not a promotion, I suggested that the receptionist was the firm's first point of contact with the outside world and that we should not risk replacing her with someone who might not be so good.

What we needed to do instead was recognize her, reinforce her value and increase her responsibility in her existing position. That kind of informed HR judgment often needs to be clearly explained for lawyers.

Traditionally, staff professionals and lawyers have had separate spheres of responsibility in a firm. The managerial staff was responsible for organization and efficiency; the firm management (typically the managing partner or management committee) was responsible for firm strategy and quality of legal services.

Today, the legal world is changing as staff become more aware of and involved in the financial and organizational life of the firm as active team members. It's a tremendously positive development, as long as everyone makes sure they are speaking the same language.

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