How to Start and Build a Law Practice, 5th Edition Excerpt

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What Clients Want: Learn How to Listen to Clients When They Talk (Foonberg’sd Rules of Listening)
by Jay G Foonberg
May 2004

Every client who comes into your office wants four things from you:

  1. They want to tell their story.
  2. They want you to listen to them tell their story and pay attention to what they say.
  3. They want you to reassure them that they did the right thing by a calling you rather than ignore the problem.
  4. They want closure. They want to get on with their lives.

Their legal problem is an interference with their life.

Knowing how to listen to a client is easily more important than knowing how to talk to a client. Many volumes and treatises have been written on how to manage client relations. In this short chapter I am only covering a few simple points for the new lawyer to learn and apply in their practice.

In a recent American Bar Association study, it was learned that 95 percent of satisfied clients (they would use you again and recommend others to you) reported their lawyer listened to them and paid attention to what they said. Among dissatisfied clients, only 42 percent of them said the lawyer listened to them and paid attention to what they said. To use these numbers in perspective:

Set the stage for listening to the client. Just before starting the interview pick up your phone and say to your secretary or receptionist, “Hold my calls, I’m in a conference with Ms. Smith.” Turn to Ms. Smith and explain, “Ms. Smith, I’m all yours and I won’t take any calls, with three exceptions:

  1. If any member of my family calls, I’ll take that call. They rarely call, but nothing is more important to me than my family.
  2. If a judge calls, I’ll take the call. Judges are on the bench and can’t make or take calls during court. They have to call when they can and I must take the call. (This may also impress the client that you are an important lawyer with legal matters in court.)
  3. A true client urgency. If there is an urgency I must take the call. But you as a client have the same privilege. Simply tell the receptionist that you are a client and this is urgent and he will put the call through to me even though I am in a conference with another client. “

Allow no telephone calls or walk ins. Hang a hotel “Do Not Disturb” on the door knob. Look at the client while they talk. Take notes (they’ll know you’re listening because you are taking notes).

About every three minutes, repeat or paraphrase what they said.

At the end of the interview ask “Is there anything you want to tell more or anything you want to ask me? I don’t want you to leave upset that I didn’t give you a chance to ask me what you wanted to as me or tell me what you wanted to tell me.” Wait about thirty seconds or a minute for the client to respond. The client will feel you listened to their story and paid attention to them.

Foonberg’s Rules of Listening are actually named after my father, who taught me two rules of listening:

  1. You can either talk or you can listen to what people are saying so you can learn, but you can’t do both at the same time.
  2. The Lord gave us ears and a mouth. It is intended that we are supposed to listen 2/3rds of the time and talk only 1/3rd of the time, or else we would have two mouths and one ear.

The result of Foonberg’s Rule is that any time you are talking more than 1/3rd of the time, you are talking too much and not listening enough.


Reprinted with permission of the author, Jay Foonberg.
Copyright 2004, Jay G Foonberg