“We’re [McLeish , Orlando LLP] in the process of retaining an ad agency for some of our marketing,” says Dale Orlando. “And it’s really frustrating when they use acronyms we don’t understand. You don’t want to ask because it seems like everybody else in the room knows what that means, so maybe I should.

“One agency came in to talk about a service agreement, and they were trying to explain to us the services they were going to provide. After listening for 30 minutes I still had no clue what they were going to be doing.”

Needless to say, Orlando did not retain that agency.

Speaking in code is an easy trap to fall into. It is the language lawyers use daily with their peers, so to talk in legal terms with a client seems totally natural. This can create two problems. First of all, when clients don’t understand what is going on, they aren’t in a position to make informed decisions.

“I like it when a doctor explains things on my layman’s level as I am not a doctor. We forget our clients are not lawyers,” says Pascoe. “I like it when my doctor makes it even simpler by drawing a diagram to explain my medical problem.” It may seem rudimentary, but it works. Understanding why something is the way it is makes it easier to accept and rationalize rather than just being told that’s the way it is.

The second problem, Dilip Soman,Dilip Soman, professor of marketing and communication strategy at the Rotman School of Business, says, is emotional: When someone speaks ‘above’ a customer’s understanding, it makes the client feel inferior.

“It puts the lawyer on a pedestal,” he says. No one wants to be talked down to or made to feel stupid, but when they don’t understand, it isn’t always easy to ask for an explanation.

As Orlando said, there is a perception that everyone else at the table “gets it,” so those who don’t are not as smart as the others. “We tell our new staff that good communication isn’t based on what the communicator says but what the listener understands,” says Gowlings Lafleur Henderson LLP’s managing partner, external Stephen Pike. “Talk in the language the client understands.”

Ditch the jargon and speak plainly. Make things as concise as possible and ask questions to make sure the client understands.

This is excerpted from the article “Let’s Get Talking“, from the 2011 issue of LAWPRO Magazine. All past issues of LAWPRO Magazine can be found at

Categories: Communication Errors