The Client Always Has Some Responsibility in Causing the Problem

Sharing Responsibility for Failures in Communications

This is a difficult one for a lot of people: helping the client to recognize that in some way, large or small, the client has had some responsibility in causing the problem. How so?

  Failures to communicate lead to problems:communicating with tin cans

Usually and most obvious, there has been a breakdown in communications between the client and the client’s antagonist or opponent that has caused the problem or at least exacerbated the problem.

Of course, as a matter of definition, communications are two-party endeavors.

It takes two to communicate effectively. And, for communications to breakdown and fail, usually there is some failure by both parties to the communication.

And, ironically, usually both parties cannot see that they both share in the failure to communicate effectively.

Each party just keeps on doing the same old ineffectual thing. Here is a case in point.

Being a movie fan, I like to use snippets of great movie dialogue to make a point. The first such snippet comes from a 1967 classic movie, Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman:

 “What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.”

 And failure to communicate can lead to disaster or comical relief—and usually one can’t predict which!

●  Failures to clarify communications lead to failures in communications:

Here is a very simple lesson that applies to failures in communications and consequently in making it easier to accept some responsibility for failures of communications—when there is any doubt, seek clarification!

 Seek clarification when something said or written or done is not entirely clear and unambiguous.


For sure, that is easier said than done. But, in hindsight, how often could very serious failures to communicate have been avoided if one or both parties had clarified what was being communicated? Way too many times.

Here is a great example of clarification from another classic movie, 30 years more recent—Michael Clayton (1996) staring George Clooney:

[Karen, the inside general counsel of the big, bad chemical corporation, is discussing with Verne, a corporate henchman, the possibility of assassinating the outside lawyer who has learned too much, but neither Verne nor Karen wants to say the words “kill” or “assassinate”]

Karen: And the other way? [Referring very discretely to assassination.]

Verne: Is the other way.

Karen: But you think it’s doable.

Verne: We have some good ideas. You say move, we move. The moment our ideas don’t look so good we back off and reassess.

Karen: Okay.

Verne: You mean okay, you understand? Or okay proceed?

Karen: [She pauses, says nothing. Verne has made it clear he will insist on clear instructions]

Verne did a magnificent job in clarifying an ambiguous (deliberately so, most likely) communication from his client Karen.


We all consistently fail to clarify and usually only in hindsight do we see how we could have and should have clarified.   That’s an easy starting point to help clients see they share some responsibility in failures to communicate.


Look forward to the next The Frog Knows blog for more on engaging a lawyer:  The “Junkyard Lawyer” Myth

Frog Knows Blog Photo The Frog Knows, aka Chuck Farrar

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