Using “Soft Skills” to Improve Client Retention

“Soft Skills” are attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others.  They include traits like diplomacy, patience, empathy, problem solving, conflict resolution, adaptability, collaboration, and communication. Cultivating “soft skills” can improve your chances of getting a job or retaining clients:

A firm that respects client service will stay open. A firm that makes client service a priority will remain successful. How do we accomplish this? It should be innate, and yet, as mentioned, communication is still the number one complaint. Given that so many people have access to and contact with clients in a law firm on a daily basis, we must stop taking “soft skills” for granted, and start placing a higher value on teaching and attaining those skills. Marni Becker-Avin, Developing Lawyers’ “Soft Skills” – a Challenge for the New Era in Legal Services.

How Can You Cultivate Soft Skills

Soft skills can be improved through learning and by example:

  • Online/self-help learning is available through resources like MindToolsSkillSoft, or Alison.
  • Prefer books?  I totally understand.  A quick search on Amazon reveals many titles to choose from.
  • If you do better in a brick and mortar setting, look for leadership, communication, and conflict resolution classes at your local university or community college.  [Don’t forget to check adult education course listings.]
  • Keep an eye out for pertinent continuing legal education (CLEs).  The PLF has an oldie, but goodie: Building a Successful Practice through Improved Client Communication.  From the landing page, select CLE > Past CLE.
  • Find a mentor.  If you are a newer lawyer in Oregon, you are required to participate in the mentoring program as a condition of admission.  However, your mandatory mentor may or may not be the best model for “soft skills.”  Don’t hesitate to seek out a secondary mentor if needed.  If your mentor sits in on client interviews, seek his or her feedback on your technique and style.  [Be mindful of confidentiality issues and conflict screening.]
  • Use client satisfaction surveys.  Tough love, yes indeed!  But there is no quicker way to find out if you have a “soft skills” gap.

 [All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

Why Professionalism Matters

Lawyers serving as mentors in the Oregon State Bar New Lawyer Mentoring Program are tasked with educating their mentees about the standards of professionalism and Rules of Professional Conduct.  Some might wonder about the former, since knowing how to comport oneself seems like a given.

Ah!  That’s where speaker Julia Hagan served up a fresh reminder in her recent talk, Professionalism: The Oregon Brand-Suggestions on Being an Effective Mentor:

Lesson 1:  Please Be Smarter than a Kindergartner

Theresa Morris, Wife of Bob Morris vs. Coker, Allis-Chalmers Corporation, et al., Case Nos. A-11-MC-712-SS (through A-11-MC-715-SS)

ORDER

Greetings and Salutations!

You are invited to a kindergarten party on THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER  1, 2011, at 10:00 a.m. in Courtroom 2 of the United States Courthouse, 200 W. Eighth Street, Austin, Texas.

The party will feature many exciting and informative lessons, including:

  • How to telephone and communicate with a lawyer
  • How to enter into reasonable agreements about deposition dates
  • How to limit depositions to reasonable subject matter
  • Why it is neither cute nor clever to attempt to quash a subpoena for technical failures of service when notice is reasonably given; and
  • An advanced seminar on not wasting the time of a busy federal judge and his staff because you are unable to practice law at the level of a first year law student.

Invitation to this exclusive event is not RSVP. Please remember to bring a sack lunch! The United States Marshals have beds available if necessary, so you may wish to bring a toothbrush in case the party runs late.

Read Judge Sparks full Order here.  And if Texas smackdowns aren’t enough

Lesson 2:  “Rock, Paper, Scissors” Isn’t Fun When the Judge Orders You to Play

Avista Management, Inc., d/b/a/ Avista Plex, Inc. vs. Wausau Underwriters Insurance Company, Case No. 6:05-cv-1430-Orl-31JGG

ORDER

This matter comes  before the Court on Plaintiff’s Motion to designate location of Rule 30(b)(6)  deposition  (Doc.  I 05).  Upon consideration of the Motion – the latest in a series of Gordian knots that the parties have been unable to untangle  without  enlisting  the assistance of the federal courts – it is

ORDERED that said Motion is DENIED.  Instead, the Court will fashion a new form of alternative  dispute resolution, to wit:  at 4:00P.M. on Friday, June 30, 2006, counsel shall convene at a neutral site agreeable to both parties.  If counsel cannot agree on a neutral site, they shall meet on the front steps of the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse, 801 North Florida Ave., Tampa, Florida 33602.  Each lawyer shall be entitled to be accompanied by one paralegal who shall act as an attendant and witness.  At that time and location, counsel shall engage  in one (1) game of “rock, paper, scissors.”  The winner of this engagement shall be entitled to select the location for the 30(b)(6) deposition to be held somewhere in Hillsborough County during  the period July 11-12, 2006.  If either party disputes  the outcome of this engagement, an appeal may be filed and a hearing will be held at 8:30 A.M. on Friday, July 7, 2006 before the undersigned  in Courtroom  3, George C. Young United States Courthouse and Federal  Building, 80 North Hughey Avenue, Orlando,  Florida 32801.

DONE and ORDERED in Chambers,  Orlando,  Florida on June 6, 2006.

Judge Presnell’s full Order may be found here.

Five Keys to Being a Good Mentor

In September I spoke at Making a Difference: Mentoring New Lawyers for the Oregon State Bar.  The program was inspiring.  I especially enjoyed Julia Hagan’s remarks on professionalism.  If you are thinking about being a mentor, I hope you take Julia’s advice:

Five Keys to Being a Good Mentor

  • Share Your Own Stories
    • Your proud moments
    • Your-not-so-proud moments (We usually learn more from our mistakes than our successes!)
  • Help Your Mentee Make Connections with Other Lawyers
    • Invite your mentee to lunch with your colleagues
    • Introduce your mentee to judges and staff at the courthouse
    • Take your mentee to CLEs or bar social events
  • Be a Sounding Board
    • Share your wisdom
    • Be the “objective ear”
    • In some cases, you may be the sole source of advice if your mentee is uncomfortable approaching a member of his or her firm.  At a minimum, you offer a different perspective.
  • Serve as a Role Model for Professionalism and Best Practices
    • Connect your mentee to other bar leaders and role models
  • Enjoy Your Time as a Mentor
    • Enjoy teaching
    • Enjoy learning – you will get more than you give!

Getting Help: Conflicts, Confidentiality, and Consulting Your Colleagues

Whether you are a new lawyer who is unsure about a matter or an experienced practitioner handling an unusual situation, odds are you’ve reached out for help.  Maybe you picked up the phone to talk to your mentor or you posted a question on a LISTSERV.  Whatever you did, you may not have given much consideration to confidentiality or conflicts of interest.

Newly adopted Oregon Formal Opinion 2011-184 seeks to address these issues. Here is the scenario laid out in the opinion:

Lawyer A participates in a mentoring program for new lawyers.  Lawyer B is Lawyer A’s mentor and is not in Lawyer A’s law firm.  Lawyer A wishes to discuss a matter concerning one of this clients with Lawyer B. 

Lawyer C is a sole practitioner.  She is a member of an e-mail LISTSERV maintained by a professional organization that provides members the opportunity to exchange ideas and respond to questions about problems and issues that arise in their practices.  Lawyer C encounters an unusual situation in a case she is handling and wishes to receive advice on how to proceed from knowledgeable colleagues who participate in her LISTSERV.

  • May Lawyer A disclose information relating to the representing of his client with Lawyer B?
  • May Lawyer B consult regarding Lawyer A’s client matter without first checking for conflicts of interest between Lawyer A’s client and any client of Lawyer B’s firm?
  • May Lawyer C relate the details of the unusual situation she has encountered to other lawyers who participate in her professional organization’s LISTSERV?

Resolving the Dilemma 

Lawyers who seek advice and lawyers who give advice “must exercise care to avoid violating their duties to their respective clients.”  It does not matter how the discussion arises:  in a formal mentoring relationship, in casual conversation, or on a LISTSERV.

Considerations for the Consulting Lawyer

“Consultations that are general in nature and that do not involve disclosure of information relating to the representation of a specific client do not implicate Oregon RPC 1.6.  For instance, there would be no violation of the rule in a LISTSERV inquiry seeking the name or citation for a recent case on a subject relevant to a client matter or to discussions about an issue of law or procedure that might be present in a client matter.  Similarly, inquiries or discussions posted as hypotheticals generally do not implicate Oregon RPC 1.6.  Accordingly, Lawyer A might safely pose a question to Lawyer B, or Lawyer C might post an inquiry on a LISTSERV, as a hypothetical case. 

Framing a question as a hypothetical is not a perfect solution, however.  Lawyers faces (sic) a significant risk of violating Oregon RPC 1.6 when posing hypothetical questions if the facts provided permit persons outside the lawyer’s firm to determine the client’s identity.  Where the facts are so unique or where other circumstances might reveal the identity of the consulting lawyer’s client even without the client being named, the lawyer must first obtain the client’s informed consent for the disclosures.”

A lawyer should avoid consulting with another lawyer who is likely to be or become counsel for an adverse party in the matter.  In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the consulted lawyer does not assume any obligation to the consulting lawyer’s client by simply participating in the consultation. The consulting lawyer thus risks divulging sensitive information to a client’s current or future adversary, who is not prohibited from subsequently using the information for the benefit of his or her own client.  This should be a particular concern to Lawyer C if she posts her inquiry to a LISTSERV, whose members may represent parties on all sides of legal issues.”  (Emphasis supplied.)

What Should a Consulting Lawyer do to Minimize the Risks?

Obtain an agreement that the consulted lawyer will maintain client confidentiality and not engage in representation adverse to the consulting lawyer’s client.

Considerations for the Consulted Lawyer

A consulted lawyer assumes no obligations to the consulting lawyer’s client by virtue of the consultation.  However, even a consultation premised on hypothetical facts can cause problems. Assume new Lawyer A asks experienced Lawyer B how a tenant can void a lease. Lawyer B advises Lawyer A how to proceed and Lawyer A’s client repudiates the lease.  Lawyer B later learns that the landlord whose lease was repudiated is a client of his firm.  If Lawyer A and Lawyer B have no confidentiality agreement, Lawyer B must tell the firm’s client about the consultation and its possible consequences.  If Lawyer A and Lawyer B entered into a confidentiality agreement, then Lawyer B and his firm would be disqualified from continuing to represent the landlord.

What Should the Consulted Lawyer Do?

  • Get the identity of Lawyer A’s client prior to consultation
  • Run a conflict check
  • Seek an agreement from Lawyer A that the consultation will not create any obligations by Lawyer B to Lawyer A’s clients.

Oregon bar members are encouraged to read the opinion in its entirety.  If you need help setting up a conflict of interest system, contact the Practice Management Advisors at the Professional Liability Fund for assistance.

Return to Oregon Law Practice Management on Monday for a post concerning newly adopted Oregon Formal Opinion No. 2011-183 regarding scope of representation in the provision of unbundled legal services.

Take Me to Lunch – A Novel Way for New Lawyers to Get Help

New lawyers quickly learn how to reach out to more seasoned members of the bar for advice.  From mentoring programs to joining bar sections and related legal organizations, there are many opportunities to connect.  But what if you need a one-on-one consultation?

If you’re looking for informal advice over the phone, call Lawyer to Lawyer (503) 431-6408 or (800) 452-8260 (elsewhere in Oregon).  The Lawyer to Lawyer program maintains a list of experienced practitioners by area of expertise and geographic location.  These attorneys, known as “Resource Lawyers,” are available to help less experienced members of the bar at no charge.  Any lawyer can call to request the names and numbers of three Resource Lawyers registered in a particular area.  Names are given out in rotation so that referrals are evenly distributed.  Resource Lawyers expect to spend approximately 10 to 15 minutes on each phone consultation.

If you’re looking for something more than a brief telephone call, use the “Take Me To Lunch Panel.”  In exchange for lunch, Resource Lawyers from the Lawyer to Lawyer program agree to spend one to two hours advising less experienced lawyers.  The only cost?  Buying the experienced practitioner a bit of lunch.

Over 17 practice areas and 160 sub-specialties are covered by Lawyer to Lawyer:

  • Administrative
  • Bankruptcy
  • Business and Corporate
  • Consumer
  • Criminal
  • Debtor/Creditor
  • Family Law
  • General Litigation
  • Intellectual Property
  • Labor and Employment
  • Public Benefits
  • Real Property
  • Taxation
  • Wills and Trusts/Probate
  • Workers’ Compensation
  • Other

If you have a question, are unsure how to proceed, or need feedback on how to handle a particular issue, consider using Lawyer to Lawyer.  It’s a terrific (and under-utilized resource) brought to you by the Oregon State Bar.  If you have a tax or accounting question in one of your cases, use Lawyer to CPA, a free reciprocal arrangement between the Oregon State Bar and Oregon Society of Certified Public Accountants (OSCPA).  To speak to a participating CPA, call the OSPCA’s Peer Consulting Service at (503) 641-7200 (Portland metro area) or 800-255-1470 (elsewhere in Oregon).

Copyright 2011 Beverly Michaelis