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Elaboration on Collaboration

client communication collaboration

A colleague and I were talking about collaboration today. It all started when I said there are 3 essential elements for conversations, especially conversations involving conflict: listening, relating, and collaborating. She doesn't believe that collaboration is always involved though; she thinks that sometimes attorneys just have to break the bad news. But that all depends on your definition of collaboration.

For me, collaborating means working together to achieve a goal or complete a task or project. The attorney-client relationship is, by definition, a collaboration - You've built a relationship working together to resolve or prevent an issue. Even if you're breaking the bad news, that conversation can still be collaborative.

 You start out as usual, listening, then relating, and then you begin more interactive discussion.  Even if your initial reason for the conversation is to break the bad news, and even if your client's options are exhausted, you can come up with a more mutual and positive purpose for the conversation, and breaking the bad news is just one talking point. For example, you might choose the purpose of leaving the client in the best possible position.

Similar to how you ease into revealing facts that are not optimal for your client, you can also ease into breaking the bad news. Then, it's much like the way you'd place facts you were obligated to disclose in the middle of a paragraph in a brief - there's conversation before and after it. The conversation leading up to it preframes it, and the conversation that follows helps them to process it.

Some might say, "I don't like to sugar coat things." That's fine. I'm not a fan of that, either; some clients may be better able to tolerate, and may even prefer, an up front and frank disclosure. But, for the clients who aren't, if you don't adequately communicate so that your client can accept, hear, and process the information you have to share, then you have not communicated well and you have left your client vulnerable; you're doing a disservice.

It may very well be that in these cases, the client will be unhappy when the conversation ends. I'm not saying they will all leave with big grins, offering to buy you a 13 course dinner to celebrate. And I'm not saying the discussion will yield another better outcome for the case. I AM saying that we don't need to set them even further back, and that if we bring our A-game, we can at least contain it.

To contain it, preframe, reveal the bad news, then lead a collaborative discussion to help close it out and get the client thinking about the next chapter. It doesn't have to be a long discussion, nor do you need a therapy license to help people shift their perspective. It's already in your skill set. A few answers and strategic questions can leave clients in a very different position than if you blurt and run.


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