Four practical steps for improving the effectiveness of lawyer-client communications

According to George Bernard Shaw

 The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place

Given the extent to which dissatisfied clients cite ‘poor communications’ as being a significant factor contributing towards their dissatisfaction it seems that many lawyers experience the illusion, rather than the reality, of effective lawyer-client communications.

As you might expect, I contend that applying standard project management techniques will help lawyers become more effective in their communications with clients.  Interestingly, the effectiveness of communications is also cited as the biggest single factor which separates the very best project managers from the rest.  We know what the very best project managers do.  Wouldn’t it be great if lawyers could learn from these people to improve the effectiveness of their communications still further?

Project Management and Communications

It is estimated that project managers spend between 70% – 90% of their time engaged in communications of one sort or another.  Even when doing the more technical tasks such as planning and conducting risk assessments, they will be gathering data from colleagues and discussing its implications.  Hardly surprising therefore that communication strategy and techniques are an essential foundation of a project manager’s toolkit.  As the Association for Project Management (APM) Body of Knowledge (6th edition) points out

Poor communication can lead to misunderstood requirements, unclear goals, alienation of stakeholders, ineffective plans and many other factors that will cause a project, [programme or portfolio] to fail

Which is why all projects should have a communication management plan “that spells out what needs to be communicated: why, how, when and to whom”.

Knowing what amounts to a communication management plan is one thing; applying it consistently is something else.   The very best project managers are the most diligent when it comes to putting communication plans into practice.

What do exceptional project managers do?

In his fascinating book called “Alpha Project Managers (what the 2% know that everyone else does not)” Andy Crowe summarises his research about top performing project managers. When discussing communication effectiveness, he points out that Alpha project managers do four things particularly well. They:

1. Talk to stakeholders, especially key stakeholders, very early in the project to understand their communication preferences

They will then do what it takes to satisfy those preferences during the project.  An important point to note however is that stakeholder preferences need not always remain the same (see below).

 2. Set a communications schedule – and stick to it.

So for example, a project manager may agree to provide a project update to the project steering committee (made up of senior staff from the client and delivery organisation) when it meets once a month, provide formal updates to the delivery internal line management once every two weeks and send around summaries of progress to the entire delivery team every week.  The best project managers will keep to the agreed schedule, unless the stakeholders themselves request a change.  Even when on occasion there may nothing much to say the communication still takes place – a short update, part of the regular scheme of things helps everyone feel the project is under control.

3. Communicate clearly, concisely and without wasting time.

I have noted previously that good project managers will spend a lot of time creating project status report templates which communicate project status succinctly with, preferably, all key indices on just one page.  They will also seek to include graphics (icons and bar charts for example) on the understanding that an appropriate graphic can convey a lot of information clearly and quickly.

It is also important that a series of updates can, over time, tell the story of the project’s progress.  We all relate best to stories, so being able to turn updates of, say, the projects 5 key risks into a story – how the risks are being monitored and perhaps actioned week by week, really helps.  I’m not saying the status updates need be turned into a Hollywood movie script or a memorable novel, but regular short summaries about the progress of key features, issues and risks will inevitably tell a story over time.

The other point to note is that updates should be kept meaningful.  Saying something like ‘we are still within proximate range of our initial target for this stage’ without being clear what the initial target was, is meaningless.  Whenever possible, provide hard data and refer to milestone dates.  It may be uncomfortable reading sometimes (no project ever goes entirely to plan) but at least the communication is meaningful and should provide a solid basis for any future discussions, because everyone is apprised of the facts.

4. Continue to discuss the relevance and adequacy of all communications with the stakeholders throughout the project

As noted above stakeholder preference may change for various reasons, sometimes perhaps reflecting changes in the project itself.  Good project managers recognise and accept this. They will quickly adapt their communication mode and style to reflect the changed preferences.

So what should lawyers and law firms do to improve the effectiveness of lawyer-client communications?

None of the above is especially difficult to do.  It does however require a sense of purpose to design appropriate communication plans and a degree of systemisation to execute them effectively.  By systemisation I do not refer necessarily to software automation (although software which can schedule reports and emails helps), but rather the systemisation of actions and activity which usually reside at the heart of successful project delivery.

I am sure that some lawyers will say they simply do not have the time to devise communication management plans for standard matter types (and perhaps even bespoke plans for larger matters).  They may also find the prospect of devising and adopting such plans rather daunting, but I suspect that this has more to do with the unfamiliar terminology used (ie ‘communications management plan’) rather than the reality of implementation.

One way of overcoming these kinds of objections and concerns is, quite frankly, to get other people to do the basic design and implementation work.  Larger firms could ask their knowledge management and operational staff to devise communication plans and suitable templates and thereafter ensure their use becomes integrated within the firm’s standard legal service delivery processes.  For this approach to work properly though, lawyers must accept that these staff will need access to clients (see points 1 and 4 above) and act as their proxy in respect of some operational matters.

I am pretty sure that even the smallest firms now have electronic templates for, say, standard letters to clients.  It should not be too hard therefore for even smaller firms to develop a few more ‘project update’ templates which can then scheduled for regular use with the firm’s most common matter types.

Beyond client communications

I have referred here to lawyer-client communications, as from a lawyer’s point of view the client is clearly the most important project stakeholder. The most important, but not the only one. In any given case lawyers will need to communicate with lots of other people on their legal team and on the other side. Creating a communications management plan for larger cases or adopting a standard plan for smaller cases can really help to keep on top of the wide array of communications required during the lifetime of a matter. Perhaps therefore, I should have called this post ‘towards improved lawyer-client communications  – and beyond!’ (with a hat tip to Buzz Lightyear!).

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