Empathy The Missing Ingredient in Poor Client Relations

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As an avid cyclist, I recently toured Eugene, Ore., home of a unique and very popular bike, the folding Bike Friday. Its founder and owner (and his daughter, the general manager), not only showed me, my wife and two of our travel companions around the shop and store, they talked at length about cycling concerns and how good customer relations can address them.

It was obvious from their hands-on approach and intense attention that this was a business that understands its customers as well as its products. The experience served as a lens through which I examined two professions: medicine and the law.

Medical schools have as part of their curriculum an emphasis on compassionate care and professionalism. In fact, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education has designated "interpersonal skills and communication" as one of its six core competencies required for every residency or fellowship program.

The primary objective of the course is to compel doctors to communicate effectively with patients' families across a broad range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

Contrast that with the legal profession. We do not require anything remotely resembling effective client communication as part of our law school curriculums.

Similarly, bar associations experience high disciplinary complaints for empathy and communications errors committed by lawyers — including such seemingly basic oversights as failure to return phone calls — but don't require law practice management programs as part of the CLE requirements. In fact, they still too often refuse to give any CLE credit whatsoever for such training.

Successful lawyers must find out not only what clients need, but also what they want. Only when needs and wants are understood can you shape your assessment of the services to provide. If needs and wants are in harmony and you inform the client what to expect, there is little likelihood of disagreement in the engagement.

The goal is not manipulating the lawyer-client relationship; it's using communication skills to empathize with the client, ensuring that the relationship is successful.

There is plenty of work available for those small firms that are flexible enough in their cost structures and nimble enough in their legal analysis. New laws need interpretation; legislators have to justify their existence and continue to write new laws, providing work for lawyers to interpret those laws and advise their clients on how to benefit from them. Clients still look to attorneys when they need help or want to right a wrong.

The point is that none of it is possible unless the lawyer is capable of the kind of empathy that fosters a collaborative relationship, founded on communication and understanding the clients' values as individuals or as organizations.

Seek out their opinions, ask them what they want to accomplish, and explain the reasons behind the advice they receive. Such collaboration creates the kind of empathy that builds the trust and loyalty essential to an enduring relationship.

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