The art of delivery
By Gideon Habel
Gideon Habel considers the challenges of tailoring and delivering difficult advice
In recent weeks, I’ve had cause to reflect on the peculiar demands of delivering difficult or unwelcome advice to clients of all types.
As solicitors, we have proudly considered ourselves the best of the legal professions to engage and communicate with lay clients. Quite how true that traditional view remains today is up for grabs.
But there can be no doubt that we are expected – and should strive – to be as adept at understanding and relating to people as we are at applying legal principles. Recent examples in my own practice have reminded me again that this is, at times, easier said than done.
The effective communication of unwelcome advice is characterised not only by the client understanding its substance and import, but also engaging with it so far as possible in a constructive and dispassionate way – and then acting (or giving instructions) accordingly.
As a profession, we are given guidance on how to deal with certain types of clients whose circumstances demand we take particular care and attention in the delivery of legal services, such as meeting the needs of vulnerable clients.
But what of clients who do not fall within defined categories of vulnerabilities? They may nonetheless demand a particular nuance in the service we provide to ensure we’re properly supporting them and giving the best means of engaging with whatever legal process affects them.
The challenge of considering how best to tailor unwelcome advice lies in carrying out a rough and ready analysis of several key factors. These include understanding the client’s specific needs at the particular stage of the retainer; the degree to which a solicitor/client relationship of trust and confidence has been established; and the client’s ability to understand the significance of the particular piece of advice in real-life terms at the particular point in time.
These considerations, especially the latter, are not always readily gauged. This is particularly so where, as is often the case in legal matters relating to individuals, the issues strike at the heart of a client’s very sense of identity, their physical or mental health or their integrity and honesty.
The initial response when receiving unwelcome advice is almost always an emotional one. Once that emotion has infused a client’s thinking, it can be a considerable challenge to alleviate it to a sufficient extent to enable them to take appropriate steps to address matters.
The same considerations remain as pertinent when framing advice on a business to business basis. Businesses may be separate legal entities to those who run and own them, but ultimately it is individuals with ambitions, egos and emotions who will be receiving and acting on your advice. This is even more so where the business has been run by an individual or individuals over a long period and it’s become impossible to discern where their identity ends and the business begins.
Getting the messaging right and delivering it at the right time is crucial and this can go a long way to ensuring clients are able to accept and adapt swiftly. But there is more.
A further challenge is to adopt the medium by which a particular piece of unwelcome advice is likely to be most effectively delivered. All media – phone calls, face-to-face conferences, emails, letters or otherwise – come with their own peculiar merits and downsides. We do well to balance these when deciding on how to broach unwelcome advice, not least bearing in mind the potential impact on the recipient’s wellbeing and stress levels of getting the mode of delivery wrong.
One might think, for instance, that a busy professional would prefer to receive this sort of advice in soft copy to consider at their convenience around their work. But by the same token, a snatched review of an important and often deeply personal email received in the middle of the day, without the necessary time to consider and process it, can add exponentially to the individual’s cortisol levels.
Alternatively, one might simply ask how the client might like the advice delivered. But if the client is particularly anxious, asking this question in a call or email might only result in a panicked call and pressure to explain the advice on the hoof rather than in the considered and measured manner you intended.
Empathy and mutual respect
The importance of getting the delivery of difficult advice right is a particular concern in the context of covid-19. For a client getting the balance right can be the difference between a lonely, sleepless night and a well thought out plan and a solid eight hours’ sleep.
As solicitors, we will in many cases be acting for clients who remain isolated, whether socially from friends and family from whom they would usually glean support or professionally from colleagues as a result of working from home.
The virtual experience of video conferencing online pales in comparison to face-to-face when, after the difficult advice has been delivered, all clients are left with is the prospect of a ‘virtual hug’ or a Microsoft Teams appointment as opposed to a physical shoulder to cry on or a colleague to bounce ideas off.
What remains a given is that as solicitors acting independently and fearlessly in our clients’ best interests, we cannot and must not shy away from sharing the messages our expertise tells us must be communicated at the right time.
To do otherwise would be to depart from those principles – indeed, potentially from the regulatory principles. The challenge before us is to ensure, so far as possible in every case, we communicate in a way that not only takes account of the client’s characteristics and personality but also in a way that resonates and best enables the client to engage constructively.
Client care is an art rather than a science. So much of it is borne out of what might be called feel or intuition. In my view, at its core lies the ability to successfully build rapport with clients regardless of their legal, personal or commercial situation. That rapport is, in my experience, more often than not based on empathy, professionalism and mutual respect.
In common with the vast majority of solicitor colleagues, I continue to strive to give my clients the best service possible, informed by their particular characteristics and personality. In doing so, I accept and embrace that none of us is perfect; none of us all knowing.
I also accept that in challenging ourselves every day to do the best for our clients and deliver according to their needs, we learn as much about ourselves and being human as we do about legal practice.
Gideon Habel is head of Leigh Day’s regulatory and disciplinary team and Fiona Barsoum, who contributed, is a paralegal leighday.co.uk