Written with our great friends at Freed Marcroft LLC in Hartford, Connecticut. We’ve been thinking a lot about communications lately. Which is a good thing.  The only lawyers who don’t need to study communication are the ones who never talk with clients. There are some out there; they certainly aren’t us.

We were recently reminded of a famous, influential, comedy team out of the ‘60’s – Bob and Ray. Bob and Ray’s entire act was based on communication, or lack thereof.

Flipping through some of the old clips from thirty years of late-night TV appearances – they were steady guests from Johnny Carson to David Letterman – one thing really hit us: Bob and Ray should be required viewing in every law school in the country and every state’s Bar association’s continuing ed classes.

Two examples stand out.

The first, their iconic STOA skit. There are many variations on the bit; the basics are this: Bob is interviewing the president of the Slow Talkers of America. The results are what you’d expect: Bob asks a question, and Ray takes his sweet time answering.

“Tell me, what does STOA stand for?”

“The …………………… Slow …………… Talkers …………… of …………… America.”

It goes on, always with the same pace. After a [short] while Bob can’t take it anymore and begins to fill in what he’s sure is where the answer’s going.

“Where is the STOA based out of?”

“We …………… are …………… located …………… in ……………Glen …………… Falls …………… New …………”

“York, right, it’s New York.”

“Hampshire.”

And so it goes. Bob is increasingly frustrated, is almost always wrong, gets more frustrated, becomes fidgety, belligerent, learns nothing.

Perfect.

We’re family law attorneys. We need to hear everything about our clients. At the same time, we need to understand it’s really, really hard to tell anyone, never mind an almost stranger, details of your family life.

We can’t force it, and we definitely can’t anticipate answers – even to the simple questions. We have to let the slow talker, fast talker (FTOA, it’s in the skit, too), close talker, and everyone else take whatever time they need to tell us what we need to know.

The second bit, we think, really speaks to the law profession: Whooping Crane Facts. This time Bob is interviewing a world renown expert on the whooping crane. Bob has a script, and Ray is a whooping crane enthusiast who isn’t bound by answering a specific question.  He’s the kind of person who takes any question as an invitation to gush facts. He stomps all over Bob’s list of carefully thought out questions.

Which Bob sticks to . . . no matter what. As the bit goes on, Bob continues to ask questions that have already been answered . . .  which leads to even more breathless information that now just overwhelms Bob . . . which makes him ask more already answered questions . . . while he screws up everything he’s already been told. Apparently, concentrating on a list of questions isn’t all that conducive to active listening.

It’s an intricate, beautifully choreographed, all verbal skit that is funny every time you hear it.

On TV or YouTube.

It is emphatically not at all funny to experience. As a client.

Interviewing a client isn’t taught in most law schools; there are no classes in how to listen. Though there should be.

Our clients are unique.  The way they talk, how they talk, why they talk, and what they choose to talk about are equally unique. There’s no script of questions, just like there’s no set way we’re going to approach a client’s case.

Which, we’re sure, is a good thing.  Poor Bob probably would have had much more fun listening to Ray if he hadn’t been so intent on hearing what he wanted to hear.

An addendum from Jenny:

Recently met with a gentlemen.  We spent about an hour and a half together.  I asked maybe 5 questions and interjected a few “tell me more about that” and “hmmm’s.”  At the end of our time together, he said, “I feel like you really get me and what’s important to me.”  Mind you, I never offered advice or opinions and certainly not judgments.  Instead, I kept him talking about his fears, his concerns and his goals.  And I listened.   When I wanted to ask a burning legal question, I listened.  When I wanted to know more about something, I listened.  When I wanted him to speed up, I listened.  When I wanted him to slow down, I listened.  When he was silent, I listened.  Clients don’t come to us for a lecture, for a Q&A session, or for an advisory opinion when we’ve done no case work-up; they come to us because they have a problem and because they want someone to listen.