The Art of Effective Communication

imagesAre you a good communicator?  Or do you find yourself struggling to get your point across?  If you fall in the latter category, it could be that you are focused on your message to the exclusion of other important attributes of effective communication: listening skills, tone of voice, body language, and empathy.

In Effective Communication, Shari Gregory relates the following tips:

LISTENING

Good communication starts with the ability to listen. Effective listening means being present, keeping an open mind, and being respectful of others. The following suggestions are just a few ways to improve your listening skills:

  • Focus on what is being said.
  • Look directly at the person who is speaking.
  • Let the speaker finish before you speak.
  • Listen for the feelings behind the words and watch for nonverbal cues.
  • Give the speaker your full attention – focus on what the speaker is saying, not on how you are going to respond.
  • Be open to the speaker’s message.
  • Ask questions to clarify what you do not understand.
  • If you are uncertain about whether you correctly understood the speaker, explain what you understood to the speaker (paraphrase) and ask the speaker if you have understood correctly.

TONE OF VOICE AND BODY LANGUAGE

More than half of all human communication is nonverbal. When talking with another person, be aware of your tone of voice, eye contact, and body language. If you feel harried or anxious when you speak, you may sound short or abrupt. If you are not feeling patient or well-balanced, your tone of voice might sound condescending or angry. Your gestures, such as hands and arms moving frantically, may distract the listener from your intended message.

For listeners, a speaker’s facial expression is often the key determinant of the meaning they give to a speaker’s message. When you speak, your face communicates your attitudes, feelings, and emotions more clearly than any other part of your body. Eyes squinting or glaring, eyebrows furrowed, face flushed red, or a frowning mouth may communicate to the listener that he or she is at fault for your uncomfortable state. The listener may become insecure or defensive, making it likely that whatever you are trying to say is lost.

Listeners are more likely to judge your sincerity and credibility based on your nonverbal behavior and whether it is consistent with your words than on your words alone. If you are feeling anxious or upset, take a deep breath before you speak. Question yourself about your mood. Take an internal look at how you are feeling and why. This will give you a “mental time out” – enough time to reframe what you want to say and how you are going to say it, taking into consideration to whom you are speaking. Organize your thoughts so you can explain why you are upset.

EMPATHY

Empathy is the ability to connect with another person and to share in another person’s emotions or feelings. As lawyers we pride ourselves as wordsmiths, but at times, our emotion, enthusiasm, and passion may cause us to forget to consider our audience. Effective communicators recognize that differences in cultures, personality, status, education, or perception may become stumbling blocks to communication. Valuing differences and keeping them in mind can help people communicate more effectively.

PARTING THOUGHTS

Shari’s tips guide us on how to approach face-to-face communications with clients.  It is equally critical that we put proper effort into our written communications.  Too often lawyers (and clients) fire off an e-mail without stopping to consider: is this the best way to communicate Remember, e-mail is meant for:

  • Quick answers to straightforward, yes and no questions
  • Making or confirming appointments, court dates, or other calendar commitments
  • Transmitting documents
  • Distributing information quickly to many people
  • Short, simple communication!

Pick up the phone when:

  • You are unclear about the question being asked
  • The question is complicated and requires a detailed answer
  • The subject matter is sensitive and your words could be misinterpreted

You can always send a confirming e-mail or letter after the fact. 

For additional tips on effective communication, I invite you to listen to this podcast of my conversation with Vicki Voisin of The Paralegal Mentor.

All Rights Reserved (2013) Beverly Michaelis

Six Mistakes Lawyers Make with Staff, Part I

In my career as a legal recruiter and law practice management advisor, I have witnessed some regrettable decisions involving staff.  I’m not referring to hiring, evaluating, or terminating employees.  I’m talking about day-to-day choices made by lawyers – those decisions that seem reasonable at the time, but have a way of coming back to bite you.  Here are four of the top six:

Lawyer as Controller

The lawyer who hires staff, but refuses to delegate any real responsibility always mystifies me.  You and your staff are a team.  Clients expect you to spend their money well.  This includes proper utilization of legal staff.  If you’re not sure where to start, please visit the blog of Vicki Voisin, The Paralegal Mentor, where you will find marvelous posts, including:

Vicki is one of my favorite paralegal bloggers.  You can follow her on Twitter @VickiVoisin.

Another source of spot-on advice is Lynne DeVenny who blogs at Practical Paralegalism.  Check out these posts:

Lynne’s blog is worth viewing for her excellent content, terrific sense of humor, and helpful links.  You can follow Lynne on Twitter @ExpertParalegal.

“I Don’t Have Time to Train”

Is it me, or is it just a bit ironic that busy lawyers who need help are “too busy” to train?  Training is time consuming – at first.  The payoff comes after the training when your secretary or paralegal takes over a task and runs with it. 

You can make the process of training much easier by creating and maintaining an office procedures manual.  Sound daunting?  It would be if you attempted to write the manual from beginning to end in one sitting.  Use the “step at a time” approach instead.  If you anticipate hiring staff soon, start your manual now.  Include copies of your client intake form, file closing checklist, fee agreements, and other common office forms.  Document procedures as you perform them.  If you learn how to restore a file from backup or change the ink in the postage meter, write down the steps.  (Even if you never hire staff, having an office manual will help you remember how to do tasks that you don’t perform often.)  If you already have staff, ask them to gather office forms and take a stab at documenting procedures.  Review their submissions and make any necessary corrections.  (Be sure to explain why you corrected the procedure – this is another opportunity to train!)  A sample Procedure Manual is available at no charge on the PLF Web site.  Select Practice Aids and Forms, then Office Manuals.

Staff Don’t Need CLEs (Do They?)

Absolutely!  Many a legal secretary or paralegal has trained a law firm associate.  If you truly want to build a crack legal team, support continuing legal education for staff.  CLEs are just one of the ways staff can improve their knowledge and help you get the job done.  In many cases, bar associations and legal organizations allow staff to attend CLEs at a reduced cost. 

Networking Isn’t Just for Lawyers

Encourage staff to belong to professional organizations like NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals, the National Association of Legal Assistants, and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations.  These organizations and their chapters offer annual conferences, monthly CLEs, webinars, legal publications, professional certifications, vendor directories, membership discounts, and networking opportunities galore.  NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals is particularly active on social networking sites.  The official NALS group on LinkedIn has over 1,900 members.

Professional organizations and CLE boost your staff’s competence, expertise, and effectiveness.  When you support professional certification, membership in a professional organization, or CLE, you enhance your staff member’s curriculum vitae.  Enhanced credentials greatly improve the client’s odds of recovering paralegal fees in actions where attorney fee awards are available.  It’s a winning proposition for everyone.

Copyright 2011 Beverly Michaelis

 

Why Should You Hire a Paralegal?

The short answer?  To save time and money!  The long answer involves seven excellent points made by Florida paralegal Linda McGrath Cruz, ACP, FRP and Vicki Voisin, The Paralegal Mentor.

If you want to increase revenue, free up billable hours, improve delivery of client services, and reduce stress, read this postTeamwork can make a big difference in the financial success of your firm.  For tips on how to interview a legal assistant or paralegal, check out this post.

The Paralegal Voice

I recently had the pleasure of participating in my first ever podcast with hosts Lynne DeVenny and Vicki Voisin on The Paralegal Voice.

Our discussion touched on a little bit of everything – practice management, ethics, and technology.  It was a lot of fun and Lynne and Vicki are great interviewers.  If you don’t subscribe to their blogs or follow them on Twitter, you should.  

The Unanswered Question

As you might suspect, our time went by quickly.  Here are my thoughts on one of the questions we hoped to tackle — how paralegals can help market their firms and improve client relations. 

Don’t Damage the Client’s Case Before It Begins

As a legal support professional, potential clients may approach you and want to talk about their case.  Resist the temptation.  You cannot give legal advice.  The person you are talking to is not a client.  Any conversation you have is not privileged, and it may be discoverable by the other side.  

Instead, steer the person firmly but politely to your firm.  The prospect can make an appointment with a lawyer and discuss his or her private legal matter in confidence.  This approach protects you, your firm, and the client.

T-R-E-A-T Clients Well

Once a prospect becomes a client, you can play a major role in promoting positive client relations.  The key is to TREAT clients well:  be Timely, Responsive, Empathetic, give Assurance, and deliver great Tangibles. 

Timeliness and Responsiveness

Make every possible effort to respond to client phone calls, e-mails, and requests in a timely and responsive manner.  If you see a delay developing (the lawyer is out of the office and won’t be able to return a call as promised), inform the client of the delay.  Keep deadline dates on your radar screen and prompt the lawyer.  If the deadline can’t be met, the lawyer can call the client and negotiate a new date.  (Not always an easy call for the lawyer, but clients are far more understanding than we give them credit for–provided they know what’s going on in their case.) 

Empathy

Treat all clients with empathy and practice good listening skills.  Often the most important client need you can meet is the need to be heard and understood.  Keeping the human touch makes a big difference.

Assurance

Assurance is defined as certainty, confidence, and freedom from self-doubt. By giving assurance, we inspire client confidence in our firm and in ourselves as individuals.  

You may think this element of client relations is outside your control, but it isn’t.  If you are confident in mind and manner, clients will be too.

Tangibles

Tangibles are the production end of the business: letters, e-mails, pleadings, and other documents that clients see, feel, and touch.  Of all the elements of client relations, tangibles matter the least to clients (timeliness, responsiveness, empathy, and assurance are judged to be more important).  Even so, tangibles are a reflection of our professionalism, and we should always take pride in producing quality work.

Remember T-R-E-A-T and you will be well on your way to improving client relations.

Copyright Beverly Michaelis 2010