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Effective Ways for Law Interns on How to Managing Client Relationships

published February 25, 2013

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Strategies for effectively relating to clients are difficult for supervisors and coworkers to explain. Because the subject is not often discussed on the job, this article addresses in detail the relational side of client dealings. In the following sections, you will learn how to emphasize client service, define the boundaries of client relationships, encourage clients' trust in you, and communicate productively even with difficult clients.

When speaking to clients, use words that convey respect and let know you are doing something for them. For example, do say:
  • "Let me see what I can find out and get right back to you."
  • "Where can I or Attorney So-and-So reach you with the answer?"
  • "Do you mind if I put you on hold for a moment while I check that?"
  • "Let me relate this to Attorney So-and-So; I know she will be interested in hearing it."
  • "We appreciate your cooperation with this request."
  • "Let me see whether there's a way to resolve this scheduling conflict (or other procedural glitch) for you."
  • "Although Attorney So-and-So is not here right now, I'll be glad to relate the problem to him just as soon as he gets in."
  • "It will be helpful to your case if you can tell me "
Unfortunately, the statements in the list below have actually been heard at some offices. The following list contains "avoidance" phrases used to get rid of someone or to delay dealing with a problem. They are sheer poison to client relationships. Even if you hear others using these words, avoid using them yourself.

When speaking to clients, do not say:
  •  'You shouldn't feel that way.'
  • 'You're wrong.'
  • T can't do anything about that.'
  • 'That's not my problem (not my job, etc.).'
  • 'I'm putting you on hold.'
  • 'I don't have any idea when Attorney So-and-So will be back.'
  • 'There's nobody here to talk to you.'
  • 'I can't help you if you don't cooperate.'
  • 'Don't be ... (stubborn, pigheaded, stupid, etc.).'
Also, bear in mind that words can be used either to inform or to impress, and avoid legal jargon when speaking to clients. Choose words that convey useful information rather than words that merely display technical expertise.

For example, an intern who relates well to clients might ask when a certain client "wants to sign his will." Another intern, eager to show off extensive legal knowledge, might ask when the client "wishes to execute his testamentary instruments." The first question informs the client, simply and directly. The second question is certainly impressive but fails to inform the client, who may now wonder just who is being executed and for what crime!

Legal jargon effectively displays your technical expertise, but at the expense of genuine understanding among clients. Instead, explain legal matters in plain English using simple, direct terms.

Clients are often unsure about how to work with paralegals or why they should do so at all. For that reason, part of your job is to help clients understand what you will do for them-and also what you cannot do.

Ideally, your supervising attorney will explain your role to a client even before you and the client meet. If you are asked to sit in on the initial interview with a client, your role will be clarified at that time. However, prior explanations by the supervising attorney are not always possible. Sometimes you may have to explain your role to a client yourself. Even if someone else has already explained your role, you still need to make sure the client completely understands the arrangement and is comfortable with it.

When meeting alone with a client for the first time, greet this person with a firm handshake and a smile, and see that he or she is comfortably settled. Begin the business at hand by verifying your paralegal role-before discussing the case or transaction.

Conveying Authority

Certain mannerisms help convey to clients the authority of specialized training and expertise. To convey professional authority, paralegals often do the following things:
  • Speak "low and slow"-avoid rushed speech, mumbling, or high-pitched, childlike tones that betray nervousness.
  • Sit tall-never slump-when meeting with a client.
  • Look at the client when speaking or listening.
  • Lean slightly forward to show interest.
  • Maintain a serious voice and facial expression when serious subjects are discussed.
  • Smile or laugh when something humorous is mentioned (but never laugh at a client).
  • Never giggle, twirl hair, or cover portions of the face with fidgety hands.
  • Remain fairly still throughout the conversation.
  • Respond confidently and fully to questions when the answer is certain.
  • Offer to get back to the client later when answers are not certain.
  • Defer to the attorney in charge when legal judgment is needed.
In this way, you diplomatically take charge of the conversation. At the same time, you subtly proclaim your expertise in the matter. These two qualities- your professionalism and your expertise-are two of the most important bases for a client's faith in you.


Acceptance refers to taking clients as you find them and working with them as they are-warts and all. It means expecting that clients will no: always share your values in life and knowing that this does not threaten your own value system in any way.

Here are a few thoughts that often help paralegals remain objective and tolerant of clients' idiosyncrasies:
  • We are not our clients. We do not have to share their view of the world, and they do not have to share ours.
  • Someone made a conscious decision to accept this client. That per: on may have insights into the case that you do not have.
  • Technically, paralegals do not work for clients; they work for attorneys. The attorney may bear responsibility for clients' actions but, in a law office, you do not.
  • As long as the client's objectives are fully within the law and consistent with your office's objectives, it is not a paralegal's job to discourage or dissuade clients.
  • If a client's actions seem legally unwise, do convey your concern to the attorney in charge of the matter-but do not discuss it with the client.
  • If a client appears to need some additional form of counseling or therapy, relate this observation to the attorney-but do not mention it to the client.
  • When conflicting values are getting in the way of quality work, discuss your reservations with your supervisor.

Unlike sympathy, empathy does not require your agreement with what someone is, has done, or wants to do. Empathy requires only your understanding of what someone is feeling.

Clients trust professionals who show sensitivity to their feelings and who treat them as people-not as just another file to be processed. Clients who sense empathy from you will usually be more cooperative and willing to disclose full information.

You might demonstrate empathy in the following ways:
  • Taking occasional breaks from note taking to look up at the client and really listen
  • Nodding affirmatively when a client shares personal feelings
  • Modulating your voice to keep it lively, avoiding a flat monotone
  • Offering a tissue and a smile to a tearful client
  • Gently touching the arm of a distraught client and saying "I'm so sorry for your loss" (or "for the trouble you've had")
  • Laughing at the client's humorous portrayal of a situation, if humor was intended
  • Responding encouragingly to the client's triumphs with words like "Good for you!"
  • Asking if an emotionally upset client would like to take a break, perhaps offering coffee or a cold drink

Rapport is a sense of affinity or connectedness between people. Rapport most often comes when people discover something in common between them- something they both relate to well. When you share rapport with someone, you tend to be more relaxed and trusting with that person than you are with others. Whenever some link between you and a client becomes apparent, cultivate that sense of rapport to bring greater trust to the relationship.

By staying alert and open to possibilities, you will occasionally find something that you and your client share. An older client may remind you of an aunt or uncle you always admired. You may discover that you and a client share the same passion for a certain kind of music, sport, pastime, or humanitarian cause. Or, you may share an intense dislike of some kind and can laugh about it together. If you notice such a commonality, mention it to the client. A degree of rapport can suddenly be created. Greater client trust usually follows.

Proving Reliability

Think back to when you have relied on the promise of someone whose help you needed-a family member, another student, or an instructor. Was it someone who had already come through for you several times in the past? If so, the promise undoubtedly brought complete peace of mind. You knew from past experience that the promise would be kept. Clients tend to see things the same way.

Trust is built gradually. It becomes stronger every time you follow through on your word to a client-doing what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it. For example, when you tell a client you will "call tomorrow morning" to report the attorney's response to a legal question, much more is at stake than just the response you promised to convey. Also at stake is your credibility with that client, who may literally be afraid to leave the house for fear of missing your call. You must follow through.

An important counterpart to keeping promises is being careful about what promises you make. Many times, the hardest promises to keep are ones that were made glibly, without thinking. Before promising anything to a client, stop and think: am I really going to be able to do this? As the saying goes, never promise more than you can deliver. You may want to build flexibility into your agreement or not make any assurance at all.

If you are careful about what you agree to do for a client, and do everything you agree to do, then clients will come to see you as someone on whom they can truly depend. Many of them will carry grateful praise to your office supervisor-bringing you the ever-deepening reputation of a paralegal to be valued in any setting.

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