Posts Tagged ‘understanding’

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)

Put on your “Junior Paralegal Hat?”

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Last Thursday’s Biloxi-Gulfport Sun Herald includes “4 tips to make your divorce easier for your divorce attorney, yourself
By Nancy Perry of The advice is all pretty good, but I was struck by tip four:

4. And lastly, put on your junior paralegal hat.

There are many things you can do rather than pay your attorney’s paralegal to do it. By helping with the workload, it will not only keep you involved in your case, but it will save you money. The best example is preparing discovery responses and marital asset inventories. You should gather the documents, copy and organize them and have them ready to go to the paralegal well before the due date. This will save the paralegal a lot of time rather than you handing over a pile of mixed up papers and expecting her to sort through them and make heads or tails of them. Also, spreadsheets are a great way to list and organize the marital assets.

Now those of you who have read either of The Empowered Paralegal books know that I am a big advocate of making the client an integral part of the legal team.  Also, I agree that the client, as part of the legal team, should do the things suggested in this “tip,” but not as a junior paralegal.  This is the role of a client who has been integrated into the legal team as a fully functioning and well managed member of that team in order to allow the paralegal to utilize his or her valuable time in the way that he or she can most effectively utilize that time in his or her role as a member of that legal team.  We need not, and ought not, to blur the distinction role of each member of the them. Rather, as discussed extensively in The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient and Professional, the paralegal ought to manage the client in a way that make the distinctive roles of each member clear, but integrates them into an effective team.  After all, it makes little sense to advise a client “You should gather the documents, copy and organize them and have them ready to go to the paralegal well before the due date.” If the client does not understand what discovery is, what documents are required, how the documents will be utilized, etc.  It is not uncommon for attorneys and paralegals to simply assume such understanding on the part of client. As discussed in TEP and previously here it is a mistake that hinders client management to make that assumption.

Professionals Think About How to Do What They Are Doing

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Professionalism is knowing “how to do” as well as knowing “what to do.” Often, to the frustration of attorneys and paralegals alike, work assignments are incompletely or incorrectly done not because the paralegal lacked the ability or the motivation, but because they did not understand the assignment. In this regard, communication between the paralegal and attorney is essential. More on that in a later post.

Before an assignment is begun, before you can even determine what clarification you need from the attorney, you must organize and plan. The first step in that provess is to analyze the assignment – break it down into its elements in a way similar to breaking down a statute or cause of action into its elements.  If we want to analyze whether our client is guilty of “Assault While Hunting,” we establish the elements and make a checklist for comparison to the facts of our case: (1) while hunting, (2) while in pursuit of wild game or game birds, (3) with criminal negligence, (4) with a dangerous weapon, (4) causes, (5) bodily injury, (6) to another. If any one of these is missing, the crime is not completed, e.g., if while hunting in pursuit of wild game or game birds with criminal negligence I cause my partner bodily injury by letting a tree branch swing back into his face, I have not committed the crime because element (4) is not present.

The same analysis can help understanding and completing an assignment. Let me give you an example from one of my classes:


The first step in completing any assignment, exam question or discussion forum is to break it down into its elements, i.e., analyze it. Let’s take a look at the Unit One Discussion forum as an example:

Either post an original answer or a substantive response to someone else’s original answer to the following question. State how critical and analytical thinking apply to discerning an answer to the question. Simple responses such as “I agree” are not acceptable. Check back regularly and participate in the discussion.

Please keep in mind that while this is an informal setting, your answers are being reviewed by all students and assessed by the instructor. Follow the writing rules. Use complete sentences and paragraphs. Make your postings concise and well organized. Spelling, grammar and punctuation count!

This can be broken down into the following tasks:
• Either post an original answer or a substantive response
• State how critical and analytical thinking apply to discerning the answer to the question
• Check back regularly and participate in the discussion
• Follow the writing rules

o Use complete sentences and paragraphs
o Be concise and well organized
o Use correct spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Take moment now to go back and review your response to the discussion forum assignment using this list of the assignment elements as a checklist. Did you complete the assignment? Did you not only make a post but state how critical and analytical thinking apply to discerning the answer to the question? Did you check back regularly and participate in the discussion?

This same process can and should be used when a paralegal receives an assignment from their attorney. For example, assume you receive this assignment in an email from your attorney:

Our client is concerned about his son, Paul. Paul is 26 but has never held a job, tends to drink to excess, gamble and (our client thinks) use illegal drugs. Our client wants to be sure that Paul’s basic living expenses are covered if our client dies but does not want to simply give the money to Paul who will surely just spend it all on gambling, drugs or just have it taken away from him. He has heard of something called a “spendthrift trust” and would like to know if it is a good thing for him to do. We need to know whether “spendthrift trusts” are enfoced in Mississippi. If there are we need to explain to our client some general background on what they are and how they work. Check whether there are any statutes which may relate to them. If there are any limits on their enforceability in Mississippi courts and what those limits are.

This can be broken down into individual tasks:

A.) Research

  1. whether there is such a thing as “spendthrift trust,”
  2. some general background on what they are and how they work,
  3. whether they exist in Mississippi,
  4. whether there are any statutes which may relate to them, and
  5. whether there are any limits on their enforceability in Mississippi courts and what those limits are.
  6. B. Report results to attorney

    Questions for attorney:
    In what format do you want the report to you – memo, draft letter to the client?
    How much time do you want allocated to this project?
    What is the deadline for completion?
    If I start by determining whether such trusts are not enforcable in Mississippi, do you still want the others issue researched?

Organization and planning are foundational elements of The Empowered Paralegal. They are so important as tools for the professional paralegal that Vicki Voison, The Paralegal Mentor,

applies them to home meal planning in her post today, The Paralegal’s Guide to Easy Meal Planning & Preparation :

First, there are two time organization issues involved with meal preparation

Planning: When you walk in the door from a long day of entering billable hours you have to know what you’ll be fixing for dinner. If you don’t, you will definitely resort to fast food, take-out or cereal. To know what you’ll be fixing, you must have a plan.

Breaking the work into manageable chunks: The task of fixing dinner seems overwhelming: too many steps and too much to do. If you look at cooking as one giant step, it’s bound to seem overwhelming. If you break it down into smaller pieces, it becomes manageable.

Read the rest of her post for the similarities between how the process is applied to classroom assignment, work assignments and home meal planning.