In this piece, we’ll examine how German Chancellor Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and entertainment icon Beyoncé reach out and engage their audiences amidst continuously changing risk, safety, and social landscapes. By combining their communication strategies with our legal skills and practices, we can enhance our own representations, reputations, and results.
Lawyers are in the business of communication: We are readers, writers, counselors, advocates, negotiators, legislators, and judges. Our job descriptions require communication in times of crisis. In fact, these are often the times when clients need our counsel the most.
Law schools don’t teach strategic client communication; instead, we learn to communicate with other lawyers. How many non-lawyers understand legal language (e.g., consideration), terms of art (e.g., adverse possession), and case law references (e.g., the eggshell plaintiff)? Although it is critical for lawyers to understand and speak the language of the law, it’s equally—if not more—important to understand and speak the language of our clients.
Happily, it’s not too late to learn.
Let’s begin with the successful communication strategies of female leaders who navigated rough waters so well that their countries suffered six times fewer confirmed COVID-19 deaths than countries run by men. Their governing decisions surely played an important role, but plans alone are not sufficient. Successful outcomes depend largely on overtly and plainly explaining those plans and influencing others to follow them. Simple, clear, and persuasive communication deliver those outcomes.
The need for effective communication emerged front-and-center during COVID-19. Amidst unrest, fear, and confusion, governments worldwide struggled to understand, track and control infections.
Chancellor Angela Merkel reached out to Germany’s scientific research organizations, public health agencies, and public universities. By convening experts and cooperating with diverse partners, she was able to obtain verifiable facts, and determine exactly what was known and unknown. She did not use fear tactics to alarm the public. Instead, Merkel leveraged scientific precision and credible sources to encourage her country not to minimize or underestimate the impact of COVID-19.
At a time when misinformation was rampant, Merkel’s clear and decisive communication was critical to Germany’s successful rebound. Her holistic, collaborative approach and honest reporting played a pivotal role in engaging citizens and influencing their adherence to Germany’s assumption of emergency powers, restrictive new rules, and regulations.
The rigor of science is not unlike the rigor of law. Lawyers also search for evidence, collect it and use it to analyze fact patterns. Where we lack subject matter expertise, we collaborate with others. So far, we are aligned with Angela Merkel’s strategies. Now let’s translate her communication behaviors to legal practice:
- Don’t let client matters languish on your desk until you have time to fully look into them. Even with respect to matters on your to-do list, make sure to dash off a short note or make a quick call to inform your clients that their files were received and will be reviewed within a date certain.
- Frame the issue(s) without sugar-coating the facts. Don’t underestimate risk.
- Share what you know and what you don’t know—there is no shame in not knowing, only in not seeking answers to relevant questions. Find the right sources and engage them.
- Propose next steps (including meetings, research, document review, etc.) and suggest a reasonable timeline.
These are communicative behaviors that show client service. Your rapid response demonstrates that you value your client’s time and appreciate your client’s situation. If client engagement has a formula, client-centered communication is surely the first step.
The pandemic response in New Zealand is another case in point. When Jacinda Ardern announced her government’s action plan, the prime minister openly shared her questions and fears about the precarious, unknown path of COVID-19. Ardern also acknowledged and commended her citizens for making sacrifices that would soon be required by new, emergency laws and regulations.
Ardern did something foreign to most other world leaders. She communicated intellectual decisions with emotional intelligence. However, just because she spoke with compassion does not mean she spoke with emotion. She did not! Instead, Ardern’s empathy signaled more comprehensive, inclusive decision-making. And its impact was spot on: Her citizens’ engagement and trust translated to courage, camaraderie, and shared purpose when—together—New Zealanders embraced the unknown.
As lawyers, we are trained to manage unknown territory. Unknowns are why litigators do not ask witnesses questions on cross-examination unless they already know the answers. Unknowns are why contracts have liability and indemnification clauses. Unknowns sometimes present life-altering and emotionally charged challenges that defy logic and understanding. Lawyers are called upon to help clients through these unknowns as well.
We are taught to isolate the cold, hard facts. However, our most effective method for client communication may very well be the tactic that sounds warm and fuzzy: Empathy. Here’s how it works:
- Imagine yourself in your clients’ shoes; how would you feel?
- Listen closely. Do not challenge or judge. Listening doesn’t mean you agree; it does mean that you actively pay attention to what you hear.
- Ask questions. Confirm your understandings and paraphrase those understandings back to clients.
- Get comfortable with silence. Pauses allow clients to think about their next point and provide an opening to introduce related facts and topics. Don’t mistake an uncomfortable silence for the chance to jump into the conversation; the pause itself may be significant.
These communication behaviors help us understand why our clients act, not just what they do. Both the why and the what may inform your legal strategy, or one may be more or less relevant than the other, and you will be able to share that observation with your client.
These insights advance our professional goals. They take us from observers to partners who can help accomplish our client’s subjective and objective goals. And, if we employ the same communication strategies with our adversaries, we will better understand the opposite perspective, more adeptly frame our arguments, and improve our settlement recommendations.
When lawyers communicate with empathy, we provide clients with more value, build trusting and loyal relationships, and improve client results. While many of us may be just learning to use emotional intelligence to drive decision-making, artists have used the powerful impact of humanity to great success.
Through many different prisms, artists uncover the full spectrum of the human condition. Their talents captured center stage during the pandemic, social justice protests, and activism that permeated our communities and cities.
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is one of many artists who shared her truth to motivate and influence others. In a March 2020 virtual graduation speech, Beyoncé reframed the impact of COVID-19 and police brutality as a global crisis and racial pandemic. Using her own experiences, Beyoncé connected to the graduates:
I did not see enough female role models given the opportunity to do what I knew I had to do . . . Not enough black women had a seat at the table. So I had to go and chop down that wood and build my own table.
With the same communication strategy Angela Merkel employed to protect the lives of Germany’s citizens, Beyoncé quickly and honestly responded to the social climate. Like Jacinda Ardern, Beyoncé used empathy to validate shared experiences and build trust. And, like Merkel and Ardern, Beyoncé also crafted a new path forward.
If you’re part of a group that’s called ‘other,’ a group that does not have the chance to be center stage, build your own stage and let them see you. Your queerness is beautiful, your blackness is beautiful. Your compassion, your understanding, your fight for people who may be different from you is beautiful. . . Be excellent . . . Lead with your heart.
Beyoncé’s call to action is hard to resist. She has mastered the art of persuasion. Let’s replicate Beyoncé’s authenticity and transfer it into legal practice:
- Stick to simple words and phrases. Skip the legalese and industry jargon.
- Speak slowly. Use pauses to allow each point to sink in. This will ensure that clients understand you and follow your train of thought.
- Use body language. Eye contact, nodding, and gestures will engage interest and hold attention.
- Repeat your message: Introduce it, explain it, and make it your takeaway.
These behaviors appear obvious, yet many lawyers do the opposite. Using simple words and phrases seems impossible because it demands that we funnel volumes of complex information into concise, logical explanations. Although this process takes time, it saves time in the long run. When everyone is on the same page, we move forward more quickly and productively.
Although repetition may appear counterproductive, it’s constructive. Repetition breeds familiarity and familiarity promotes preference. Clients, colleagues, judges, and juries are more likely to act on recognizable, agreeable positions. Consequently, repetition is important for persuasive communication.
Every lawyer approaches communication from a different perspective, work environment, lifestyle, and background. Why not capitalize on our unique journeys to enhance client relationships, engagement, and retention? By prioritizing client-centered communication, especially in times of crisis, we will enhance even the most successful of law practices. Let’s follow the lead of Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, and Beyoncé.
About the Author
Francesca Rothseid teaches, consults, and writes on a wide range of topics related to business strategy and leadership communication. Her articles have been published in The Philadelphia Business Journal, The Penn Law Journal, and Law Practice Today.