How to Master Change Management At Your Law Firm
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Chapter 4: Effective Communication On and Off the Field
Explore the critical role of effective communication across various settings, drawing insights from industries ranging from airlines to sports. Mastering this essential skill can help enhance the success of your law firm and legal team.
Geoff Ebert
November 2023

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”- ranked 11th most memorable quote in American film history. This was first heard in the film Cool Hand Luke in 1967. Between a coach and players or between team members in a legal firm, it should probably rank number one as a reminder. Let's break down some key pillars of team communication.  

Communicating with Consistent Language  

All AFL football teams have their own language and terminologies. Some are specific to each club, and some are generic across the sport. When I ask a player to kick to the fat side of the ground, I expect they will understand what to do.  

Similarly, in a professional office, consistent messaging when communicating with clients stems from the language or systems set and used internally. From a technical point of view, this includes the tone set for language used in correspondence including the degree of formality and type of emotion conveyed to meet client experience expectations. A family law firm, for example, may wish to emphasise empathy and kindness towards clients who are going through the trauma of a high-conflict separation or divorce.  

Style guides setting branding and language are used by many larger law firms and businesses, however, regardless of firm or business size, it remains important that all team members use the same language and formal documents are consistently crafted to ensure client comfort when relating to multiple team members, making the experience seamless and smooth.  


Communicating in a Crisis  

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores reasons for the run of 7 significant crashes by Korean Air over 20 years. One most notable incident was when Flight 801 crashed into a hill on approach in 1997 killing nearly all on board. Questioning contributing elements, the inability of the pilots to fly the planes was found not to be a factor, the ultimate finding concluded that failure to communicate between the crew members was the culprit that led to multiple crashes. Observing protocol in Korean hierarchical culture the co-pilots dared not raise their specific risk concerns directly with the captain being their “superior”, instead communicating too subtly and too late.

It is perhaps obvious to suggest that in high-stress or time-sensitive legal matters, the members of the team working on that matter need to communicate frequently, directly, and transparently. The question is, does that happen, and what systems are in place to ensure the best opportunity for this to occur? For example, do the junior solicitors know they can speak openly with the firm partners or directors if they see an issue arise, even if ultimately their suggestion may not be correct for a reason they haven't identified? Also, are there systems in place for remotely located staff to have regular input into the overall conduct of a matter? To avoid an “us and them” culture can the administrators in the firm speak openly with the solicitors about issues they see from their perspective like timeframes of document production.  


Communicating the Right Message  

When coaching youth footballers modern coaching methodology takes a teaching and feedback approach. A key consideration is imparting the correct technical information that is relevant to the training focus or game day scenario being discussed. In addition, a coach should also be considering what message the team or individual players are seeking. In the example of a football team starting poorly in the first quarter there is a choice to offer technical advice or recognise that the players may simply benefit from a message of emotional support like “we are doing alright - just hang in there and the game will turn in your favour”.  


Former US Navy Seal, close combat specialist, and all-around scary guy, Jocko Willink, acknowledges communicating the wrong message in teaching a young marine hand-to-hand knife fighting skills. He explains a scenario where two young marines armed with knives were wrestling on the ground and he offered encouragement to one of them that he was doing a good job and to keep going. That marine immediately stopped wrestling and jumped to his feet saying “Sir, I don't need your (expletive) motivation Sir” then jumping back into the fray and continuing the knife fight. Reflecting on this moment Jocko realised that the marine’s motivation was already high, being in a volatile situation, and he could really have benefited from technical skills to win the fight.  


Successfully running a law firm or legal team requires consistent communication, verbally and non-verbally, of the right message at the right time. A senior staff member ignoring a junior member when passing in the hall communicates the wrong message to the junior team member. Similarly, lawyers known for their technical skills often fail to communicate empathetically focussing on communicating technically with their junior up-and-coming team members. Ultimately, team member satisfaction and low team turnover can be achieved by communicating the correct technical advice and empathetic messages at the right times.  


Client Communication  

Law firm thinker and early proponent of value billing, Ronald Baker, wrote The Firm of the Future, a book that makes a very clear point about communicating with clients - communicate in accordance with what the client wants and when they want. A study of why clients leave law firms indicated that 80% of them left due to a failure of effective communication and had little to do with technical skills. Consistent and effective client communication can be achieved with the implementation of systems for communication specific to various stages of matters and assurance that all team members adhere to those standards of communication.  



The art and science of communication tend to be left well behind as a soft skill in many a law degree. Cartoonist Scott Adams of Dilbert fame notes this point stating that only 2% of people succeed by pure technical excellence alone. For the rest of us, being in the top 20% of three different skills will lead to having a successful career including in the law. Making communication one of those three skills puts one well on the way to success.

Read Chapter 5

Written by Geoff Ebert, Your Online Legal Group

Geoff Ebert
Principal, Your Online Legal Group
For over three decades Geoff Ebert has observed the legal industry and elite sports landscape developing a philosophy of embracing empowerment and a growth mindset. The major areas from which he draws his knowledge and experience are:- 15 years as managing partner of a large regional law firm; more recently, founding Australia’s first wholly online divorce practice, currently the leading provider nationally; and decades of coaching youth representative teams in AFL. Along the way he has collected endless threads of wisdom from various sources to share with others in the hope of developing empathy, resilience and growth in business, sport and community leadership

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