The Dangers of Silence

Lawyers ignore clients’ queries at their peril; giving nearly any response is better than no response at all

ALTHOUGH LAWYERS are generally considered to be good communicators, there are circumstances in which lawyers don’t say enough, or don’t say anything at all. This article explores some common situations in which lawyers are sometimes silent when they shouldn’t be, and examines the reasons behind the lack or absence of communication, along with some recommendations on how to better handle these situations.

A Lawyer Who Has No Interest

Often, if a lawyer is contacted by a potential client who is of no interest to them or is approached by an existing client to work on a matter that is of no interest, his or her response is silence. The silent approach is rooted in the belief that it is better to say nothing (and let the other person conclude that you have no interest in what they have to offer you) than it is to tell them directly that you are not interested.

The fact is, however, that no one wants to be ignored. There are few things more insulting or offensive than not being acknowledged, and if you ignore someone entirely you will do far more damage to that relationship than you will if you tell them you don’t want the work provided that you deliver that message in the right way.

Let the client or potential client know how much you appreciate their interest in involving you, and that although you are unable to take on the work or project you would nevertheless still like to assist them. You can do so by offering to help the client find someone else to do the work (thereby doing something for two people: both the lawyer you are giving the referral to, and the client being referred), or by giving them some advice or input on the matter that will point them in the right direction.

A Lawyer Who Is Too Busy

There may be times when the work is of interest to you but you are too busy to take it on. In situations like this, many lawyers delay their response because they don’t want to say no, or because they hope that if they wait long enough they will find a way to open up the time required to do the work. But once again, silence or a delayed response will damage your relationship with the requesting client, because doing so suggests to them that their matter or request isn’t important to you.

So, rather than waiting, or not responding at all, get back to them immediately. Let the client know that you are very interested in doing the work and that you want to help them in any way you can. Explain that, given your other commitments, you are not now able to give the matter the time and attention that it requires in order to be properly dealt with.

Let them know that you can either take it on at a later date (if indeed you can do so and the matter can wait), or help them find someone else to work on it.

Although the client might be disappointed that you can’t take it on immediately, they will appreciate the fact that you have responded to them right away and that you are offering to help them get the matter addressed. And they will respect you for not being willing to compromise the service that you are providing (both to your existing clients to whom you are already committed, and to them).

A Lawyer Who Doesn’t Have the Answer (in Whole or in Part)

It goes without saying that you have a professional responsibility to provide your client with the right advice, and if you don’t have the answer to their question and need more time or information in order to give them what they need, you must say so.

Rather than doing what many lawyers do, which is to delay your response until you have the full answer, be in touch to let them know that you are looking into the matter and that they can expect a fuller response from you soon. This will assure them that you are attending to the issue and are committed to doing a good job, rather than leaving them wondering whether you are dealing with it at all, or making it a low priority because you feel you have better or more important things to do.

The bottom line is that regardless of whether or not you are in a position to deal with a client request (and, indeed, whether or not you even have an interest in doing so), you must always respond immediately, in order to let the client know that you have heard them and that you want to assist them. This is critical to forming positive, solid relationships on which to build your practice.

Donna Wannop, LLB, MBA, is a practice-development coach (www.donnawannop.com) who has worked exclusively with the legal profession for over 20 years. Reach her at donna@donnawannop.com.