Posts Tagged ‘communication’

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.)

 

 

Email as a Communication Barrier

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Thanks to Lynne DeVenny’s I’ve now added to my list of paralegal blogs.

A post from August 19, “I’m Offended” deals with the difficulties that can arise when emails are used to communicate. The blogger notes, “Remember it is difficult to convey and discern tone and emotion in emails.” I discuss barriers to effective communication and understanding extensively in The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient, and Professional.” Even when communication takes place in person, these barriers range from linguistic and cultural differences to the need to accommodate diminished hearing and sight in the elder client. Just about any organizational administration and management points out that often the sender of a communication actually hinders communication by:

–> Not being clear about what is to be accomplished with the message;
–> Incorrectly assuming that the receiver has the knowledge necessary to understand the message and its intent and does not adapt the meeage to the intended receiver;
–>Using a communication medium not suited for the message, e.g., using email for a communication that really requires face-to-face meeting, and many other means.*

Going back to the Paralegal Ethicspost, the blogger notes, “The originator of the email series was trying her best to gently deliver some news that she expected would disappoint or even anger the primary recipient of the email.” It may be that the basic problem here was not that the originator did not use the correct words, but that he or she used the incorrect medium. News that is expected to disappoint and anger simply should not be delivered by email. While it may initially appear easier because the email acts as a shield between the person delivering the message and the person receiving it, in the long run it is more likely to create difficulties and very likely to increase the inherent difficulties.

The professional approach is to use the correct cummunication medium for creating the best understanding even when the message being delivered is an uncomfortable one.** Thanks to technologies such as Skype, a personal approach can be taken even over great distances.

*Swanson, et. al., Police Administration, 7 ed. 350-1 (Pearson/Prentice Hall 2008)
**

Attorneys: Mentor Your Paralegals

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Elona Jouben, MPS, Paralegal/Program Assistant at American Association of University Professors has a very good article in Escambia-Santa Rosa Bar Association’s publication, The Summation. The article is addressed to attorneys who sit in their office “frustrated because [they] are not quite getting the quality work product and professionalism [they] want from [their] paralegal.” She notes that that many paralegals have  a “paralegal‘s fervent, but often overlooked, wish – that [the attorney]would do something to enable her to more fully develop the skills” and advises attorneys, “The answer is
simple and may not have even occurred to you. Mentor your paralegal.”

Mentoring, as Elona points out, ought to be part of every attorney/paralegal relationship. She say, “Mentoring your paralegal begins by simply being willing to take the time to answer questions – not just what and how, but why it is important as well. Opening and encouraging channels of communication and providing constructive feedback on your paralegal‘s work product allows her to understand not only what you want corrected and how, but the all important why behind it.”

The one caveat I’d add is that the mentoring can, and should, go both ways. As I’ve noted here (and in The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient, and Professional) The keys to an effective, sustainable attorney/paralegal relationship include respect for each others role on the legal team and communication about and within those roles.

In previous posts I’ve discussed, however, the confusion that may exist even among attorneys over the role of the paralegal. That confusion results not only in a less effective legal team, but in frustration and unhappiness on the part of both the attorney and paralegal.

You can help reduce the confusion by being aware of the potential for it, being clear in your own mind about what you can and cannot do, and being willing to talk to your attorney about it in an open, honest and non-confrontational way. This is especially true in obtaining the instructions you need to do your job correctly.

No one benefits from a paralegal spending four hours completing a research project only to find out they did not understand what the attorney was asking. Nor is it beneficial to spend four hours completing a project you do understand if a few clarifying questions would have made it a one hour project. On the other hand, receiving highly detailed instructions or only unchallenging tasks that require little or no instruction wastes the attorney’s time, under utilizes you as a paralegal which wastes the attorney’s money and your competence, and leads to frustration on your part, if not hers.

However, it is not likely that she does this intentionally. More likely, she was simply unaware that more was needed, either because that is her management style, she made faulty assumptions or she has an insufficient understanding of what you in particular or paralegals in general can do. She cannot read your mind, and you cannot read hers.

So you can see that obtaining proper instructions means instructing the attorney. We come back again to basic communication.

In other posts, I’ve discussed some measures you can take to prevent and resolve these difficulties, and improve attorney/paralegal communication in general. Most can be found in the “Relationship with Attorney” category.

Say what?

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

This has little to do directly with paralegal, other than as an object lesson on sentence structure and clear communications. Here’s the introductory sentence from an ABAJournal.compost:

Ohio tort lawyer Stan Chesley is facing an ethics investigation by the Kentucky Bar Association for his conduct in litigation involving fen-phen and priest abuse.

I admit to being behind in such matters, but I was totally unaware of a connection between fen-phen and priest abuse. In fact I wasn’t aware priest were being abused. You can check out what they really meant here.

Communicating with the Elder Client

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

An essential component of client management is ensuring that communications with the client are understood by the client. 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.)

Professional Advice from Arizona

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

azcentral.com has an article by Justin Doom that collects advice for persons working in offices from local experts including a Phoenix-area firm that specializes in recruiting attorneys, paralegals and receptionists. The advice is much like that given in this blog, but worth the read for the emphasis and clarity of presentation. While cast as “Mistakes to avoid if you want to move up,” it is basic advice regarding professionalism. Here are the headers:

• Be aware of office politics.

• Communicate effectively.

• Hustle and show initiative.

• Sick pay is for actual sick time.

• Avoid excessive breaks.

• Stay off the Internet.

• Dress professionally.

• Be careful with e-mail.

Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/business/articles/2010/06/12/20100612career-mistakes0613.html#ixzz0qkTobekD

Don’t point that smiling emoticon at me!

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Tuesday’s New York Timescontains an article regarding advice from a law firm senior partner to young lawyers regarding the use of email communications. The point of the article is really that there are some things that simply must be done face-to-face. He is advice was in the context of using communication technology to avoid travel costs, but it seems to me it applies not only to lawyers, but paralegals, and applies even when the person with whom you are communicating is just across town or in the office down the hall:

Emoticons may work in personal communications. But Don G. Lents, the chairman of Bryan Cave, the international law firm, said he doesn’t like seeing them in business communications. If you’re depending on a smiley face to communicate a thought to a client or a distant colleague, he tells young lawyers in his firm, you should probably step away from the keyboard, get on a plane and communicate in person. Especially if the communication involves any kind of dispute.

“You should never engage in a disagreement electronically,” Mr. Lents said he advises them. “If you are going to disagree with somebody, you certainly don’t want to do it by e-mail, and if possible you don’t even want to do it by phone. You want to do it face to face.”…

“That’s an important message that does not necessarily come naturally to a lot of younger people today who have grown up with so much of their communications being by texting and e-mail,” he said. “I tell our younger lawyers, if you think you are going to have a difficult interaction with a colleague or a client, if you can do it face to face that’s better, because you can read the body language and other social signals.”

“In texting and e-mails or even videoconferencing, you can’t always gauge the reaction and sometimes things can have a tendency to be misunderstood, or they can ratchet up to a level of seriousness that you didn’t anticipate,” he added. “In person, you see that somebody reacting in a way that you didn’t expect. Then you can stop and figure out what’s going on, and adapt.”

The importance of body language and the ability to communicate as well as exchange information are difficult to overstate, as indicated by the extensive treatment given to them in the chapter on dealing with attorneyr relationships in The Empowered Paralegal.

However, I’d also like to emphasize Mr. Lent’s admonishion not to use emoticons and the like in business communications. It’s fine in personal communications, but just does not cut it professionally. Remember that all communications, even those between you and another paralegal working on a case, may be reviewed at some point by a client (when they take the file to another attorney), by another attorney’s office, by a malpractice insurance carrier, be a malpractice jury, or by the Board of Bar Overseers or other entity regulating attorneys. If a client’s complaint relates to a lack of professionalism (and they all do in a way), a file filled with unprofessional communications is not a good start.

I require my students to communicate with me with the same professionalism they should demonstrate in the office. An email that reads, “CN U MEET @ 4? J” will not get a response, while  

 Prof. Mongue,

  Are you available to meet with us at 4:00 p.m. today? 

 John Student.

will.

Why don’t lawyers use punctuation?

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

One recent viewer arrived at this blog through the search query, “Why don’t lawyers use punctuation?”  Of course, the searcher did not find the answer her, although he or she likely found several posts noting that even judges have had enough of legalese, poor grammar and punctuation, and poor writing in general, and posts regarding my own quest for a reduction in the use of legalese, Latin phrases, and other impediments to clear communication with clients. (Lawyers also use incredibly long sentences like the one preceding this parenthetical, a sentence like this one that should be broken down into two or more much simpler sentences.) I post about these things here because in most law offices it is the paralegal who is charged with client communication.

Following the searcher’s query, I did locate an ABC Radio National – The Law Reportinterview with Judith Bennett, Plain Language Consultant at Melbourne’s Freehill, Hollingdale and Page that sheds some light on why lawyers starting writing the way we write which you can read here. It even attempts to give some answer to the more important question of why we, as a group, still write that way. Finally, Bennett joins in the call for the use of plain language – not surprising given that she is a plain language consultant. The incredible thing is that a law firm needs a professional consultant in order to write plain language!

As I’ve stated before the professional paralegal excels at conveying legal concepts using plain language rather than by perpetuating legalese. A message I’ll be repeating here and in all three of my courses this spring – Bankruptcy, Business Organizations, and Contracts. (That noise you just heard was the collective groaning of my students.)

Communication and the Attorney-Paralegal Relationship

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

The keys to an effective, sustainable attorney/paralegal relationship include respect for each others role on the legal team and communication about and within those roles. You can greatly improve the respect you receive from your attorney through professional conduct and high quality work (as opposed to just satisfactory work.)

In previous posts I’ve discussed, however, the confusion that may exist over the role of the paralegal. That confusion results not only in a less effective legal team, but in frustration and unhappiness on the part of both the attorney and paralegal.

You can help reduce the confusion by being aware of the potential for it, being clear in your own mind about what you can and cannot do, and being willing to talk to your attorney about it in an open, honest and non-confrontational way. This is especially true in obtaining the instructions you need to do your job correctly.

No one benefits from you spending four hours completing a research project only to find out you did not understand what the attorney was asking. Nor is it beneficial to spend four hours completing a project you do understand if a few clarifying questions would have made it a one hour project.  On the other hand, receiving highly detailed instructions or only unchallenging tasks that require little or no instruction wastes the attorney’s time, under utilizes you as a paralegal which wastes the attorney’s money and your competence, and leads to frustration on your part, if not his.

However, it is not likely that he did this intentionally. More likely, he was simply unaware that more was needed, either because that is his management style, he made faulty assumptions or he has an insufficient understanding of what you in particular or paralegals in general can do. He cannot read your mind, and you cannot read his.

So you can see that obtaining proper instructions means instructing the attorney.  We come back again to basic communication. In subsequent posts, I’ll discuss some measures you can take to prevent and resolve these difficulties.

Feedback, Attitude and Control

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

The Career Coach” at The New York Times deals this week with reacting when passed over for a promotion. Much of what is said, however, I advocate doing before regardless of promotion opportunities. That is to say, there should be good communication between the paralegal and attorney, including the paralegal specifically asking, with a positive attitude, for feedback as a normal part of the paralegal/attorneyrelationship. Here’s some of the what the article says:

What you want now is feedback, said Jane S. Goldner, a management consultant and author of “Driven to Success: A 10-Point Checkup for Achieving High Performance in Business.”

Asking why you didn’t get the promotion will only put your boss on the defensive. “It’s far more productive to ask what you need to do to be the best-qualified person next time,” she said.

Unfortunately, managers can be vague when it comes to this kind of feedback, so press for specifics. “If they say you need to work on communication skills, for example, ask what needs work — written communication, group communication, one-on-one? You need to know what to focus on,” Ms. Goldner said.

Convey your desire to learn what skills you need to develop, Mr. Beeson said. If possible, speak not only with your boss, but also with senior executives you work with.

“Ask them for examples of how you have fallen short,” he advised. “At the end of the meeting, ask what two things above all others would most build their confidence in your ability to succeed at a higher level. It is usually one or two things holding someone back, and you want to know what those two things are.”

Be aware of your body language during the meeting, Mr. Maurer said. Your boss is watching you to see how you are taking the information. “Don’t get defensive,” he said.

Q. How do you demonstrate to your boss and other senior executives that you are working to develop the skills necessary for a promotion?

A. After the meeting, send your boss an action plan that reiterates your discussion and the goals that have been set, and that tells your boss what you need from him or her in order to be successful — perhaps periodic meetings to assess performance, Ms. Dutra said. “Mangers love the fact that someone is saying ‘I need your help,’” she said.

Q. How do you manage your anger and frustration while working toward the next promotion opportunity?

A. Managing those feelings is vital, because negativity in the office can be a career killer, said Shawn Achor, a teaching fellow in psychology at Harvard and C.E.O. of Aspirant, a management consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass.

Mr. Achor studies the effects of positive and negative attitudes on job performance. He says that people who have a sour attitude begin to deconstruct their social support systems at work and lose their connection to co-workers. “Then they become the toxic person on the team,” he said.

A positive attitude, however, brings more intelligence to a task, allows you to see more possibilities and work longer and better with those around you, he said.

Instead of dwelling on the disappointment, he said, write down a list of the things that are outside your control, like the economy or office politics — and focus your energy and time on what you can control, like your performance.

This is all good advice and much of it is included in The Empowered Paralegal, but my position is that you need not, and should not, wait for disappointment to occur before you

Obtain feedback

Ask what you need to do to do your job the best it can be done

Request specifics so you know what deserves your focus.

Convey your desire to learn what skills you need to develop.

Are aware of your body language at all times.

Set periodic meetings to assess performance,  saying ‘I need your help.’

Manage your anger and frustration because negativity in the office can be a career killer.

Have a positive attitude.

Write down a list of the things that are outside your control, like the economy or office politics — and focus your energy and time on what you can control, like your performance.

The keys are communication (in this case not only feedback but communicating your needs), a positive attitude and control. These are all part of taking charge of your career. As noted in a previous post here Chere Estrin of the Estrin Report and Know: The Magazine for Paralegals in her article on Examiner.com entitled “In Search of the Rest of Your Career” states

I am emphasizing career-changing rather than changing careers. This means taking charge of your present career and changing it around to best suit your needs rather than switching careers all together.

Take charge of your career on a daily basis. Don’t wait for a promotion opportunity or other event. If you take charge now, you will be the best person for the job when the promotion opportunity arises.