No news is not good news! No news in the practice of law ratchets up people’s imaginations and stress levels as fast as thinking about sharks when you are swimming in the ocean.

  • When clients hear no news from their lawyer, they start questioning whether their lawyer is working on their matter. When partners hear no news from associates on projects, they wonder if the work is even being done.
  • Hearing nothing on their matters, clients and partners also start to worry that no news means bad news – bad news that is being kept from them.
  • Just as bad or perhaps worse, clients and partners start to worry about the size of the eventual bill for the work about which they have heard nothing!

The bottom line is people start to doubt the non-communicator. Doubt – which rapidly becomes lack of trust – is a kiss of death in the practice of law.

Today’s Communications Tips:

1. Communicate frequently

The definition of frequently depends on the situation, of course, but you should start with a clear understanding of your client’s or colleague’s timetable. Ask people for it, tell them when you will get back to them next, and stick to it. Err on the side of reporting too often. People will tell you if it is too often. If you are not sure whether they like it or not, ask them.

2. When you have nothing to report, communicate anyway

“I only hear from my lawyer when they send a bill.” Don’t be that lawyer!

Call or write your client or partner BEFORE they contact you. If you’ve been putting off contacting a client, inevitably they will contact you and you will kick yourself for not contacting them first. Even if you make that call and they say I was just about to call you, your relief on making that call just in time will be huge. Contact them BEFORE they contact you. That means if you are even thinking this might apply right now, CALL them!

3. When you have nothing to report, in most situations don’t just communicate that you have nothing to report

For example, if you are waiting for information from someone else or from a court, don’t simply say we haven’t heard back yet. Because the client’s or partner’s next thought will be: Well, what have you done about it? They will look at you as responsible and your passivity will look weak. By taking action in advance, even if the result remains the same, you can report on what you have done and head off the doubters. Bonus: that email or phone call is also an opportunity for you to provide them with some extra, unexpected value.

I had a minor situation like this a few weeks ago where I was going to report to colleagues that I still hadn’t heard from a potential vendor. I was ready to write off the vendor but also felt that the others might misinterpret my “still haven’t heard” email, and I felt I hadn’t given it my best effort. Maybe my previous emails to the vendor had gotten caught in a spam filter. So I called, left a message, emailed the vendor again, and then reported that to my colleagues. Crickets. We moved on.

4. A regularly scheduled reporting system or communication check-in spurs action

My earliest experience with this was in the mid 1990’s on an out of state multi-party Federal case in which the judge required a monthly conference call with all of the lawyers. Knowing the call was always looming on the calendar, between calls we had to make progress on discovery, do our best to resolve discovery disputes, and not waste time. No one wanted to admit to the judge they had not done what they should have done or be accused of being difficult. Most of those monthly calls were incredibly brief. The judge’s communications system worked.

I often think of that first experience and of regularly scheduled coaching calls as what I call the weekly piano lesson lesson. Even though my piano teacher could always tell if I had only practiced a few days before the lesson, at least I had practiced. Having to report on a regular or as-promised timetable spurs action.

In future posts I will talk about other benefits from frequent communications, how to communicate mistakes and other bad news as an attorney, and, far and away the most common complaint against attorneys – failing to timely respond to clients. In the meantime, if you would like help communicating more effectively, please contact me.