The Legal Document Information Gap
Have you ever received a business document from a lawyer (maybe your lawyer) that you didn’t fully understand? Did your lawyer take the time to make sure you fully understood how to use the document?
Too often busy lawyers prepare documentation for clients without fully understanding the business or individual client’s requirements, risks and wishes. This is especially true of terms and conditions, hire agreements and supply contracts which are often vital to the client providing goods or services and getting paid.
It is sometimes simply a matter of the lawyer not having enough time to visit the business or meet the client in a place the client feels comfortable explaining exactly what the issues are. Lawyers offices are rarely conducive to making clients feel comfortable and phone conversations may not reveal all of the issues.
The lawyer uses their experience to draft a document that they think will do the job based on the sometimes limited information that they have. Clients are often unwilling to request changes to documents provided by their lawyer. Often the documents are confusing and may go unread. The document may be perfect for the client’s needs but the client may not understand it.
Lawyers will often follow up clients to ask if there are any changes required to a draft document. If a fixed fee estimate has been provided then many busy lawyers hope the required changes will be minimal. In this context, clients are often unwilling to acknowledge that they do not understand parts of the document or that they do require changes.
The lawyer then finalises the document, sends the invoice and a polite letter thanking the client for their instructions and the client is left with a document that does not meet their needs or that they do not understand and are unwilling to use – a potentially major and risky information gap.
To minimise this happening, lawyers need to spend time getting to know their clients and their individual requirements. Visiting the business or meeting clients on their own turf is a great start. Spending time researching the relevant website and industry is also useful.
Once a lawyer has prepared a business document and before sending the draft, a document review meeting (by Skype if the parties are unable to meet in person) with a fixed time should be arranged. This helps motivate the client to review the document while it is still fresh in their mind. The lawyer should be clear that the document will likely require amendments and that they genuinely welcome the client providing their questions and comments.
At the review meeting the lawyer should explain all of the document’s material clauses and ensure that the client understands and is comfortable with each provision. If other staff, such as sales managers and credit staff, will be using the document then they should also be involved in the review.
Once the document is finalised, time needs to be taken to ensure that the client is clear on how the document is to be used. It is no use having a great set of trading terms if it is sent out with the invoice after the work has been done!
A short follow up a few months after the meeting can help to ensure that the correct business process is in place and the document is being used to its full potential. It is also a great time to tweak and improve the document once third parties have given their feedback. Again the client should be encouraged to ask for changes if the believe they are required and to query any issues that may have arisen.
Empowering clients to understand and assist in producing their documentation and to use it in the most effective way is a skill that many technically excellent lawyers could look to develop. Closing the information gap can add real value to the service that lawyers provide.
You can also read this article on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/legal-document-information-gap-hamish-scott