Strained relationships

Rapport building with clients, counsel, and co-workers in socially distant times

Miles B. Cooper
2020 September

The lawyers sat at the dinner table with their children. “How are you liking Zoom karate?” one of them asked. Their eight-year-old told them karate was fine, but he missed his friends. The lawyer followed up, “You see them during class, don’t you?”

“Yes,” the child said, “But it’s not the same. I want to be with them.” The child’s intonation stressed longing. And the lawyers understood what their child meant…

Good rapport

Jedi lawyers take on many challenges. One of those is establishing rapport. Rapport with clients, adjusters, opposing counsel, mediators, and co-workers. A cup of coffee or a drink with opposing counsel after a deposition affords an opportunity to get to know opposing counsel as more than an opponent. That opposing counsel becomes a person, let’s say Pat, who has a mother with Alzheimer’s, not a lot of love for the case’s claims adjuster, and a punch list that, if fulfilled, will help both sides settle the case. No matter how fast the broadband, how crisp the pixels, or how good the booze, a Zoom happy hour just is not the same…

So do we Jedi lawyers pack our light sabers into our briefcases, stomp off, and pout it out in our home offices until the Covid clears? Or do we innovate and improvise ways to build rapport? For society’s sake, not to mention our practices, we must find ways to maintain human contact. In illustrating this, we focus on adjusters and opposing counsel. But the methods apply to everyone, including clients, mediators, and co-workers.

Old tool

We rarely meet adjusters. Yet they are the primary deciders in our cases. What works when engaging with them? Picking up the phone. Imagine you’re an adjuster – stuck in Suisun City cubicle hell. You have a choice between responding to the umpteenth aggressive email from a lawyer you’ve never spoken to or answering the incoming call from that lawyer who always asks how things are going. That second lawyer gets the attention and the extra push. The emotion voices convey helps build that rapport.

Spontaneity won’t cut it

Adjusters use another tool. Scheduled outreach. You’ll notice that every 30, 45, or 60 days an adjuster will call or send a letter. That’s not spontaneous – it is planned. Learn from it. We build rapport with those we regularly engage with. At the end of a call, tell the person how long you think it will be before it will be useful to speak again. Then schedule that next call before you hang up. This is an incredibly simple yet incredibly powerful tool. Clients, in particular, appreciate this. They are not left wondering what is going on in the case.

Be human

The drink after a deposition allowed one to let one’s guard down. So does the home office. A kid is making background noise or a package delivery happens during the call? Acknowledge it and explain your situation. Start your relationship by asking a little about how the person is dealing with all the challenges 2020 is throwing our way. Everyone is dealing with this. As you learn about folks, make an effort to remember the little things. Their kids’ ages, the aging parent who lives with them… Some people are better at this than others. If tracking this detail is not a strong point, make notes. Add any significant points to the notes field in whatever contact system you use (Outlook, Contacts, what have you) so you can remember to follow up the next time you talk. Being genuine here is important, though. Better to skip this if you are not actually interested in people.

Video or phone

We’ve hammered on picking up the phone. What about everyone’s favorite new tool, video platforms like Zoom? Video conferencing can be very helpful for initial client meetings. Video is also useful when the meeting is important enough that you want everyone paying attention. People frequently tune out during conference calls. This is harder to pull off when you are on a video screen. An office case strategy meeting is one example of when video may be better than a call.

Recognize, though, that we all went a bit video crazy early pandemic. If you insist on a video session when it arguably is not needed, the folks who have come to enjoy the relaxed home dress code won’t be pleased about the required extra effort video entails.

Outro

Back to the lawyers and their kids. They sympathized. And they emphasized that while the times were challenging, their family was very fortunate. They had a roof over their heads, food on the table, siblings to entertain each other, and a video platform to communicate with their friends. So many now face far, far greater challenges, and we should be thankful for what we have…

Miles B. Cooper Miles B. Cooper

Miles B. Cooper is a partner at Emison Cooper & Cooper LLP. He represents people with personal injury and wrongful death cases.
In addition to litigating his own cases, he associates in as trial counsel and consults on trial matters. He has served as lead counsel, co-counsel, second seat, and schlepper over his career, and is a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates. Cooper’s interests beyond litigation include trial presentation technologies and bicycling (although not at the same time).

 

Copyright © 2020 by the author.
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