Archive for December, 2013

Holiday Gifts for Paralegals

Friday, December 20th, 2013

I’ve seen a few good lists of gifts for paralegals on LinkedIn discussion boards. A Google search using “paralegal holiday gifts” brings up some good choices. But the point of this post is to remind you that there is no better gift than a good book. Yes, I do have some specific titles in mind.

But all attorneys should keep in mind that gifts, especially copies of any of The Empowered Paralegal series of books, are, of course, wonderful, but cannot possibly substitute for a bonus that recognizes their contributions to the firm’s bottom line.

By the way, em>The Empowered Paralegal series of books will soon have a new addition: The Empowered Paralegal Cause of Action Handbook.”

A Goddess in Disguise

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

When Odysseus went off to fight in the Trojan War, he placed his friend Mentor in charge of his son Telemachus. Odysseus was gone twenty years, ten to fight the war and ten on his Odyssey traveling back home. During this time, the goddess Athena visited Telemachaus often. She guided him in his search for his father and his efforts to stave off the many suitors seeking to marry his mother on the assumption that Odysseus was dead. She offered encouragement and practical advice during Telemachus’ quest. In order to hide her involvement, Athena disguised herself as Mentor. Today we use the term “mentor” to refer to an experienced and trusted person who advises and guides aspiring new members of a profession.

This was all brought to mind by a post by Philip Haebig on the Paralegal Group LinkedIn discussion board, describing the difficulty he had finding a mentor and encouraging the use of LinkedIn and similar media for mentoring purposes. He states in part, “In closing, it took forever to get someone to be brave enough to say yes to mentoring a young starter. It took respect and dedication in heeding that mentor’s advice. And most of all it cost me very little for the growth it has facilitated, which is why I make the most of my connections in my network. After all, one’s network can truly be their net worth. Seeing as LinkedIn and the Internet are the exact place(s) to do this with very little hassle to both potential Mentor and Mentee, I am happy to share my knowledge, resources, and encouragements. And I suggest that you do too!”

I join Philip in encouraging experienced paralegals to become goddesses/gods in disguise as mentors of new paralegals. The comments to his post reinforce the notion that paralegals associations can and do play a role in connecting mentors and mentees:

Connie Johnson
Paralegal at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP

Hi Philip – I am the President of the Inland Counties Association of Paralegals in California. My association is actually working on getting a mentoring program together something like what you have discussed. I am sharing your link with my other board members. Would you mind if we include it in a future newsletter? We have a lot of student members, we are all on advisory boards of local educational facilities, and are hopeful we can get some people to step up and be mentors such as you detailed above.

Mariana Fradman, MBA
Senior Legal Assistant, Chadbourne & Parke LLP

Dear Philip – can I please share your post with my mentees? You said exactly what I was trying to deliver during my presentation about the benefits of LinkedIn at the NYCPA Mentor Program Workshop last Thursday.

Another Paralegal Blowing a Whistle

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

While I’ve not had time to finish the ongoing discussion with Clifford Smith regarding my post, “Can Doing Right Be Wrong,” regarding the “paralegal” who gave confidential client documents to the opposing side’s attorney, it is clear that this issue is one that is faced from time to time by paralegals – or at least paralegals allege it has happened. According to the Tri-City Herald, “A former CH2M Hill paralegal says she was fired after she accused the company of purposely withholding documents from prosecutors investigating timecard fraud at Hanford,” but there is no indication that she did anything other than make the accusation (i.e., she did not, as the tobacco whistleblower did, simply take the withheld documents and give them to the other side:

She was assigned to search and locate documents for the Department of Justice in an earlier case, a 2010 investigation of fraud linked to CH2M Hill purchasers at the Hanford tank farms. She had concerns then that CH2M Hill was withholding information about hundreds, if not thousands, of stored boxes of Hanford records and Hanford databases and that Hanford staff were hiding or destroying potentially damaging records, according to her legal complaint.

Later that year, CH2M Hill received a subpoena for documents related to timecard fraud allegations. The company is accused of billing DOE for more overtime than was worked to induce employees to accept overtime shifts.

… CH2M Hill initially produced a limited number of documents related to timecard fraud for the Department of Justice, which then notified CH2M Hill in May 2011 that it was not satisfied.

But Randazzo was told to remain silent about documents she either knew or suspected still existed at Hanford, according to the legal complaint. If CH2M Hill Hanford Group did not search the stored boxes of Hanford records and databases, then it should at least let the Department of Justice know it existed, Randazzo argued. ..

After Randazzo raised concerns, she began to be harassed to get her to quit and then was fired in October 2011, she said in court documents. She believes she was fired in retaliation for refusing to mislead the Department of Justice.

CH2M Hill vigorously denies all of this, which is neither here nor there on the issue important here – exactly how can and should a paralegal handle situations like this.
Interestingly, Craig Simonsen posted a link on NFPA’s LinkedIn discussion board to his article announcing that OSHA has launched on online form for submission of whistleblower retaliation complaints under OSHA investigatory jurisdiction. It is unlikely that OSHA would have jurisdiction over cases like the one under discussion here, but perhaps the courts should consider establishing a similar vehicle for complaints of this nature or for confidential disclosure of the fact that evidence is being improperly withheld (like the “hotlines” set up to report abuse and neglect of vulnerable people.

The Estrin Report on Effective Client Communications

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Chere Estrin’s newest “The Estrin Report” on effective client communication starts with a great quote from George Bernard Shaw, “”The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Chere sets out and explains five important tips for improving communications with clients and more. Here are the bullet points on the five tips, but you should read the entire article:

1. Let clients speak for themselves.
2. Try to take a no-blame approach. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge mistakes.
3. Show respect.
4. Don’t volunteer others. Speak only for yourself.
5. Use every opportunity for learning, connection and insight.

Client communication is a fairly frequent subject on this blog, and in both The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient, and Professionaland The Empowered Paralegal: Working with the Elder Client.  The essence of client communication is understanding that it is not enough to see that merely that the client hears or reads the communication. We must take effective steps to see that the client understands that communication. This frequently means overcoming barriers to communication. There are some barriers that are always there. There are others that pertain to particular groups of clients or to individual clients, or are greater obstacles to understanding with some clients. Consider this except from The Empowered Paralegal: Working with the Elder Client on accommodating the diminished hearing and eyesight that so often accompanies aging:

When communicating with elder clients it is often necessary to adjust communications to accommodate diminished hearing or vision. In general, simply increasing volume is not a good answer because it increases the volume of the sounds a person can hear as well as those he or she
cannot. As stated above this is one problem with the use of hearing aids. If a client is having difficulty distinguishing speech or other desired sound from background or other undesired sound, simply increasing the volume of all sound will not help, and may make the problem worse. Finally, shouting and other means of raising volume can lead to confidentiality problems. It increases the chance that the conversation will be overheard by other persons. This is especially true when we must meet our client outside of the office—in their home, a hospital, nursing home, or other assisted living facility.

If the solution implemented to accommodate the loss of hearing is increased volume, then we must also adopt some means of maintaining confidentiality. Sound-proofing rooms is quite expensive but provides the additional benefit of screening out distractions. Certainly we should consider rugs (well secured so as not to create a tripping hazard) and wall décor that deaden sound. However, we can take simpler steps such as conducting conferences in rooms detached from waiting rooms and other high traffic locations. In addition, we can follow the
lead of therapists and use “white noise”machines outside of conference rooms.

Fortunately, simply raising the volume is not the only and often is not the best way to accommodate our clients’ diminished hearing. Gerontologists inform us that there are ways to communicate that compensate for much loss of hearing. Many of the techniques are helpful in ensuring understanding of our communications with any client. Those methods include:

• Face the person and maintain eye contact. This minimizes distractions and provides non-verbal clues as to what is being said as well as directing the sound at the listener.
• Sit somewhat close to and at eye level with the listener. Large, fancy conference tables are nice, but it may be better to sit next to the listener rather than across the table. Placing the client at the end of the long side of the table and sitting at the closest point on the short side allows closeness without the need to turn uncomfortably to the side to maintain eye contract. Watch the client’s body language for signs that you are too close for their comfort.
• Do not cover your mouth or face with your hands or objects such as papers while speaking. This muffles and deflects the sounds and creates an unnecessary distraction.
• Speak slowly and clearly but not in an exaggerated way.
• Minimize distractions, especially background noises. Again, sound proofing a room can be excessively expensive, but distractions can be minimized by holding conversations away from high-traffic areas, using “white noise” machines, and décor that deadens sound. Sometimes it is as simple as remembering to close the door. “White noise” machines can be purchased in sizes that fit in a briefcase and brought to out-of-office meetings with the client.
• Speak in a lower tone of voice. This is not as counter-intuitive as it may seem. We are not talking about lowering volume but tone of voice, thus conveying our words in frequencies within the listener’s ability to receive. Speak as you normally would in terms of cadence and modulation.
• Especially important information should be repeated often and in different ways. If the client fails to catch the point due to sound distortion, distraction, background noise or the like when it is stated one way, they may understand the same point when it stated a different way.
• Speak from a checklist or agenda so that points are made in a clear, systematic way. Provide the client with a written checklist of the topics covered and/or specific information conveyed such as items they must bring with them to the next meeting.

I suggest you literally put yourself in the place of the client. Sit in your conference room at different times of day and listen to the background noise. Do this not from the seat you normally take, but the seat or seats normally assigned to clients. Sit outside your conference room and listen for indications that conversations can be overheard. Conduct conversations with earplugs that
deaden, but do not eliminate sound. Ask the other person to try the techniques listed above in various ways and settings to see how they work from the perspective of the listener with diminished hearing capacity. Accommodating our clients’ diminished hearing capacity is generally not difficult if we make ourselves aware of it and implement reasonable steps in response to it. It helps not only the client but the entire legal team. Effective and efficient communication among the members of the team is essential in order for any
member of the team to be able to perform at his or her best.

(Excerpted from The Empowered Paralegal: Working with the Elder Client scheduled for publication by Carolina Academic Press in September, 2010. Internal footnotes omitted.)