Speak Your Clients’ Language

I don’t watch much television, but while I had the flu I didn’t feel up to doing anything more energetic than staring at a screen.
 As I was flipping channels, I happened across what I thought at first was a rather poorly done law firm ad… And then I discovered that it was a promo for Staten Island Law, one of the newest shows on the OWN channel.  You can see the promo spot here and another one here.

(If you’re from Staten Island and horrified, my condolences — I once saw a neighborhood where I used to live on the Real Housewives of Atlanta, so I can empathize.)

The Staten Island lawyers, Elura Nanos and Michele Sileo, are former New York City prosecutors who founded Lawyer Up to tutor law students on complex legal concepts using easy-to-understand terms.  Their book titled How to Talk to Your Lawyer is already on sale, with good reviews.

Staten Island Law is about mediation rather than legal representation as such, but many reviewers won’t catch that distinction, and those who do may or may not understand that mediation isn’t quite the same when it isn’t part of a reality TV show.

Why should you care about Staten Island Law?

Whether you represent individuals or Fortune 50 companies, the series portrays lawyers who appreciate their clients’ needs, which should be your focus as well.  When I speak, I often say that to be most effective, you must grok your clients.  Robert Heinlein coined the word grok, which means “to understand profoundly and intuitively.”  Although the word is most often used by programmers, engineers, and those who enjoy science fiction, it’s applicable to attorney-client relationships as well.

What does it mean to grok a client?  It means that you understand their needs and wants, you speak their language, and your interests are aligned with theirs.  Staten Island Law offers a great example of client-grokking in terms of legal language and colloquialisms.  If you watch some of the program clips available online, you’ll also see that the Staten Island lawyers move beyond the stylistic connection to understand their clients’ wants and needs.  For example, this clip shows them exploring why a woman is so opposed to the prenuptial agreement that her fiance insists on having, only to discover that their explanation of marital property rights puts his fears to rest.  (Don’t look to the specifics of the advice, just the conversation.)

Think about how you approach your clients:

  • Do you speak your clients’ language…?  Or do you expect them to speak yours?
  • Do you spend time getting to know what your clients want and need…?  Or do you assume and project?
  • Would your clients say that you “get” them…?  Or would they shake their heads and sigh, “You know lawyers…”?
  • Do you ask questions and explain concepts using examples that are relevant to your clients…?  Or do you use cookie-cutter examples that they may understand intellectually but not in any experiential way?

The more you can empathize with and relate to your clients, the more satisfied they are likely to be with your representation.  Demonstrating this same connection with potential clients will also make it more likely that you’ll get hired.

You may be wondering how you can come to grok your clients and potential clients.  Simple: build relationships and ask questions.  Even intuitive understanding requires a base of knowledge.

Whatever your client profile, make sure you spend time getting to know them and demonstrating that you understand and care about their perceptions and needs.  Your client relationships will be strengthened as a result, your referrals will grow, and you won’t have to wonder whether your clients are learning from books or ACCA meetings how to “wrangle” you.

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