Knowing how to listen

  • August 07, 2014

After a meeting with his or her lawyer, a client often leaves thinking that somehow, they are not on the same wavelength. The lawyer seems to have the ins and outs of the case down pat, but there remains a lingering doubt in the client's mind.

"I'm not sure that my preference for an out-of-court settlement has been well understood," the client wonders. "It seems to me that I said it clearly, but I get the impression that the lawyer wasn't listening."

This kind of unease can undermine the relationship between a lawyer and a client. "Knowing how to listen is a key component in the practice of law," says Francis Gervais, President of the Barreau du Québec. "When a difficult situation arises, it often results from misunderstanding the client's problems. "

Marc Cardinal, president of Sigmapi Management Corporation, a firm specializing in practice management training, could not agree more: "All lawyers, he says, have the ability to provide legal services. What sets some apart is that they succeed in responding to the intangible needs of their clients, who want to be informed and reassured in accordance with their personal concerns. To do this, their needs must be understood."

"Listening is not only learning to shut up," adds Cardinal. Understanding the meaning of words is not enough. A professional must also decode the body language of a client to discover his or her personality. Helping the client to express points of view more clearly may contribute to a better working relationship. Phrases like "If I understand you well..." or "What you're really saying is..." should be used without reservation.

Knowing how to listen is an ability and a technique that can be learned, even by professionals who are not endowed with a natural ability to communicate. With proper training, a lawyer can learn to identify the psychological profile of a client in a few seconds and choose a course of action in keeping with the client's personality, says Cardinal.

In the first part of an interview with a client, Jean-Yves Brière, professor at the École du Barreau du Québec, a lawyer should not take notes. Instead, eye contact should be maintained with the client. Trying to be too efficient by immediately sorting out the problem may only worsen things. The client may take his or her problem to someone who will take the time to listen.