How to Improve Communication with Your Small Law Firm Team

In small firms, speed and efficiency are at a premium. Poor communication can sap your team’s motivation, slow down your work and even cause you to lose clients. Unfortunately, when you are busy and stressed (which can be much of the time at a small firm), communication often falls by the wayside. But taking the time to keep a few simple steps in mind can vastly improve your communication skills, leading to increased engagement, better productivity, increased loyalty and improved client relations.

What is the Purpose of Your Communication?

The first step is to think about why you are communicating. What is the goal you are trying to achieve with the communication?

Do you simply want to inform or convey information, like a new policy or procedure in the office? Or are you trying to persuade or gain consensus, for example to convince your partner why your firm should take on a new practice area?

Are you merely assigning a work task to your long-time assistant? Or is the communication part of training a new hire or helping an existing employee to learn a new skill? Is it an evaluation of a team member’s performance? Is the communication a means to provide constructive criticism and help someone improve?

The purpose of the communication or the outcome you expect to achieve as a result will often dictate your next steps and how you approach the communication, including to whom the communication should be directed, what information must be included, and the timing, method and tone of the communication.

Who are You Communicating With (Who is Your Audience)?

With your purpose in mind, take a moment to consider who the recipient of your communication is, or should be. Who needs to receive the message of the communication? Is this information that should be shared with a select group, or the whole firm?

Is the message directed to one of your law partners, your assistant, or a new hire? Consider the recipient’s position within the firm, their level of experience, and their knowledge of the subject matter that you are communicating. How will the communication affect the recipient, their job or role within the firm?

What is the Substance of the Communication?

Now, give some thought to the composition of the message itself. How important is the subject of the communication to you, the firm, and/or the recipient(s)? Are you communicating firm-wide goals, visions or plans, or asking one individual to take on a finite task, such as calling to confirm an appointment? Does the recipient need additional documentation or background information to understand the substance of the communication based on their position or your purpose?

Tell the recipient whether a response is required, and if so, what kind. What response are you seeking from the recipient(s), and what form should that response take? Do you want the recipient to take an action as a result of the communication? If the recipient is expected to act on the communication, do they need to tell you (or someone else) when action has been taken?

What is the Context of the Communication?

Even when you have defined the purpose to the communication, the intended recipients, and the substance of the communication, you still need to consider the context; the location and timing of a communication can have a profound effect on how your message is received.

Where will you deliver your message? Is this a message that is better conveyed in public? For example, praise for a job well done, although personal to one team member, might be a way to motivate others to do better, or to demonstrate the firm’s values. In contrast, reprimands are better given in private to avoid embarrassing or discouraging team members in front of others. Is this message better delivered outside of the office?

The timing of your communication is also important. For example, don’t wait until the end of the day when team members are halfway out the door to broach an important topic. Schedule meetings far enough in advance to allow attendees to make the time to participate. Don’t wait until a new hire’s first day to inform the rest of the firm that someone will be joining the team. Think twice before communicating when you or the recipient are angry or emotional.

Are You a Good Listener?

Communication is a two-way street; good communicators are not only good at communicating their thoughts to others, they are also good listeners. Effective communication is respectful of the recipient, takes the recipient’s perspective into account, and provides an opportunity for feedback and response. It conveys that the recipient is an important and respected member of the team and the firm.

Actively encourage participation and input. Allow others to freely express their concerns or opinions. Provide opportunities to ask questions and contribute ideas. Be open to other points of view instead of thinking about your response or what you intend to say next.

Be fully present during any communication, whether one on one or in a group setting. Don’t allow distractions. Answering emails, doing paperwork, taking calls during a discussion, or having (or allowing) side conversations during meetings undermines the communication and signals a lack of respect for both the speaker and the others present.

Pay attention to body language – both yours and that of the listener or recipient. Body language can send the opposite message from what your words say. Look for signs of lack of engagement or agreement, or for body language indicating that a listener has something to say but is reluctant to speak up.

Poor communication within a small law firm can send the message that partners and other firm leaders are too busy to listen to team members’ concerns or to give them important information they need to do their jobs. This can result in team members feeling marginalized, leading to a lack of engagement within the firm, poor performance, and poor client communication.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I’ll talk about choosing the right mode of communication, and why email is often not the best choice

Allison C. Shields, Esq. is President of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., which provides productivity, practice management, marketing, business development and social media training, coaching and consulting services for lawyers and law firms nationwide. She is a co-author of How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line, published by the American Bar Association Law Practice Division, among other books, and she frequently lectures and writes on all of these topics for bar associations, law firms, law schools and other legal organizations. Her website, Lawyer Meltdown, and blog, Legal Ease Blog, provide tools, resources and information to help lawyers improve their practices.

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