My wife and I were recently travelling in southeast Asia on a cruise ship when the concerns about the Corona virus became more of a worldwide concern. Nine days into our 18-day cruise, we were told that the cruise was going to end and everyone had to get off the boat and fly home. Our cruise had to finish there in Bangkok because a number of countries were starting to close their ports to cruise ships.
A few days before the cancellation of the cruise was announced, there was another announcement on the ship that they were going to be changing some of our ports and that we were now going to be going to Malaysia, which had never been on the itinerary. It was a very short message, without much detail or explanation as to why that was occurring. This lack of communication caused a lot of angst, created a lot of speculation and led to people having some wild theories about what was happening.
As my wife said to me, it would have been much better if they had assembled the passengers in the theatre, had somebody from the cruise announce what was going on to allay any concerns, to answer people’s questions and end the speculation.
When the trip was cancelled and the ship was not going any further than Bangkok, arranging flights for all of the passengers out of Bangkok needed to occur. Again, we saw problems with communication. There was difficulty connecting with a head office which was making all flight arrangements but was in Miami with a 12-hour time difference and closed during our daytime. There were inaccurate messages passed between the concierge who was dealing with the flight arrangements and the crew members arranging transportation from the boat and any hotel stays.
I understand that there were a lot of things happening but there certainly could have been better coordination between the people on the ship who were dealing with the unloading of passengers. Although my wife and I made it home safely, the situation around changing the cruise itinerary and then ending our cruise altogether would have been less stressful if communications had been open, clearly presented and better coordinated.
In my career, I have taken over a number of files from previous solicitors and the number one reason why clients change lawyers is because of a lack of communication. They often complain that they have not heard from their lawyers for months, have no idea what was going on with their litigation and often do not get any answers to the questions that they have. I feel that a fundamental principle for being a good lawyer is to be able to communicate with your client on a regular basis and to be able to keep them informed about what is going on and answer their questions.
When I first meet with clients, I introduce them to my clerks and tell them that the clerks are there at their desk during weekdays and can probably answer 95% of any questions. I always tell them that if they want to speak directly to me, all they need to do is ask. I will return their call as soon as possible. I emphasize to clients that the only stupid question is the one they fail to ask. I believe that it is important to make sure that clients are comfortable to ask whatever questions they want to, even if they think the questions are silly.
Clients are looking for a lawyer who will listen to them, understand their concerns and fears, and guide them to a fair resolution. Being a good lawyer means listening to what the client says, understanding what they want or need, and, where possible, satisfying that. If, however, it is not possible, I explain to them why their needs cannot be met. It is important to explain that I understand what it is they are asking for or believe they may be entitled to, but then explaining to them in clear and precise terms why this is something that is not achievable. In my many years of practice I have found that if you explain things to clients in a way that they can understand, they are eventually able to acknowledge that their initial goal may not have been reasonable and modify their positions accordingly.
Another thing I promise clients is to always tell them the truth even if this involves telling them things that they do not want to hear. Sometimes these are things that they need to hear in order to deal successfully with their litigation and manage their expectations. Sometimes being a good lawyer means disagreeing with your client, but clearly communicating the reasons why you cannot do what they are asking you to do.
Communication becomes even more important now with the isolation of clients because of COVID-19. Our department essentially shut down about three weeks ago and everyone started to work remotely. With the modern tools of computers, the department has stayed in constant contact and we have department meetings twice a week via webcast or other communications.
More importantly, we immediately communicated with our clients that we know this would be a particularly hard time for them with no therapies, isolation etc., but we were there for them and available anytime, even if they just wanted someone to talk to. We also have communicated to them that social workers or psychologists were available and appointments could be done by phone or virtually.
What causes people the most concern and fear and leads to negative speculation is the lack of communication. Keeping clients in the know and letting them know you are there for them is of utmost importance.
We have certainly seen different styles of leadership in the world during this crisis and the best leadership is where there is direct and forthright communication with the people.