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One thing I have learned during my 42 years of law office management is this: Lawyers and paralegals don’t talk the same language and they don’t think the same way. They live on different planets, breath different air, and they even have different customs. Yet, if there is ever a time and a place and a need for both to be on the same page, it is with the relationship and communication skills that exist between lawyers and paralegals.
Relationship skills and communication skills are not something you are taught to the degree needed for a good working relationship between two highly skilled professionals. Until such time as both sides step back and learn the art of business relationships, effective communication, and good feedback skills, the working relationship will suffer and both sides will have great stress.
Lawyers tend to underestimate the project, tend to assume that the paralegal understands what needs to be done, doesn’t allow time for questions, doesn’t give information, and then when the project is not delivered as the lawyer thought tends to judge the paralegal on lack of performance. It all started with the message.
Part of what I do is to resolve conflict within a workplace, attempt to establish a positive work culture, and establish relationships that allow everyone to work effectively in an open and honest atmosphere. The majority of the time it is successful when both sides are willing to see the other’s point of view.
When communication is only one-way, the work environment becomes unhealthy and inefficient.
I get a call and before I walk into the firm, I can tell you what the core problems will be. The first simply is communication, and the second is giving and receiving effective feedback. It is a two-way street between a lawyer and a paralegal.
It is important to understand some history in the legal field before you can began to understand why no one is talking the same language. Lawyers first and foremost are analytical thinkers. This is what makes them good lawyers. They tend to process things one at a time. Unless they are unusual, they have not been taught business principles, the core of which is good management of personnel and resources. They are given a problem (legal issue) and they must analyze the problem and divide it into key components and then figure out how to resolve the problem. In some respects, they now see their job as done.
Paralegals are process-based people. Through training, education and experience they have the skills to accomplish the task at hand. They want as much information as they can get. They take this information and figure out what needs to be done. They think through the project at hand, think what process is needed to accomplish the project, organize it and proceed. The lawyer doesn’t care about the process and thus does not understand how to translate the analysis of the problem and the required needs into a way the paralegal can assume control.
The use of non-lawyer professionally skilled paralegals is still in its infancy. Lawyers still do not know how to use paralegals and some are threatened that a non-lawyer can be used at such a high level. They want a worker bee when, in fact, they have a thinking bee.
Lawyers have to be familiarized with the quality of skills that good paralegals possess and trained to utilize those skills on a higher level.
Having said that, as a paralegal, you must understand how the lawyer thinks and find a way to get the information you need. There is more than one way to skin a cat – and you can make the change in your working relationship with your lawyer, if you want to.
Let’s talk more about lawyer thinking. An example may well be a client who has a complex legal problem. The lawyer is thinking about the law, how it applies, the key elements necessary to resolve the legal problem, the pros and cons of which way the law should be applied, the relief the lawyer wishes to see the client obtain, and what forum is best served. The lawyer makes the decision to take the case and proceed with a lawsuit knowing the relief sought will be available in front of a jury box. The years of training and education have paid off. There is a calculated plan in place. The lawyer now transfers the work to the paralegal. The paralegal has to take this, usually without enough information, and get it down the road.
TRUTH: Lawyers hate nuts and bolts work!
A good paralegal will try to get as much information as possible so he or she understands the situation. Like the lawyer, the paralegal is going to be analytical to the extent to of analyzing what needs to be done, what are the key components, and what is the timeline. The paralegal begins processing and is immediately thinking of collecting the information and evidence, drafting complaints, discovery, motions, scheduling depositions, mediations, and preparing for trial. A good paralegal wants to deliver the best work product and participate in the process.
TRUTH: Paralegals take pride in nuts and bolts work!
If the attorney-paralegal communication stream isn’t lined up, it causes stress, which can hinder the working relationship of the entire team.
Understanding key thinking strategies on both parts allows you know-how to get the planets aligned so that the best of the best comes out in all situations.
The basis of a stress-free environment is to have a good business working relationship between the lawyer and the paralegal. What makes that relationship work has many elements, all of which, if handled properly, will make a winning team, rather than a team at war.
A warning sign in management is when a lawyer and a paralegal have such a close personal friendship that the business relationship is secondary. As a professional paralegal, your job is to work with and support your lawyer so that the best interest of the client is served. Respect from lawyers is earned when you deliver professional work coupled with professional delivery. This does not mean you cannot be friendly and interested in each other’s personal lives but not to the extent that one takes responsibility for the other outside the office. Such a relationship is wrong and interferes with perception of you as a professional by others.
The easiest way is to simply tell you this – a good paralegal leaves personal matters at home. When a lawyer comes in and says, “How are you?” he or she is talking about a general idea. They don’t want to hear how your children are in a blow-by-blow description, nor do they want to know the latest crisis in your life. By the same token, I get worried when I find a paralegal who knows every personal detail of her lawyer’s life and is proud she has involvement. The dreaded words to me are “He can’t do anything without me!” This is not your job. Lawyers tell me over and over again they are genuinely interested in the health and welfare of their staff, but they hate to feel responsible for it.
How do you make the distinctions? A good employer will support you during a time of crisis. To do less is not acceptable! Employees deserve this. Good employers are not responsible for your personal happiness. That is your job. The reverse is true. You do not get raises or promotions based upon how personally tied the lawyer is to you. In fact, my personal opinion is that the traditional non-lawyer who has so developed a relationship that involves deep personal interest in the lawyer’s life to the extent you are a confident is at the low range of salary and promotions. The paralegal who cares about the lawyers, provides the support needed, and has a genuine interest in the career of the lawyer stands out.
If you cannot walk in the door, turn your computer on, and see the job at hand as one of professional pride for delivery of work, you are wrong. If you come in the door, immediately seek out your lawyer to tell him or her the latest disaster or latest gossip, or you demand to know what happened in his or her life from the night before, you are dead wrong. You are not a professional.
So what is the balance? It is a matter of deciding what you are trying to gain. If you want professional respect, you act professionally. If you want a personal confident and friend, then you shouldn’t be a paralegal. If you feel that is now your role, you need to change it and perhaps read some books on relationships and what an “enabler” is. You are not to do the lawyer’s job and the lawyer is not to do your job. Understanding the roles makes a better relationship.
And let me warn you – you can be overly professional as well. The easiest way to explain this is that I want to be respected for my work, my education, my training and my ability, and in return it doesn’t bother me one bit to get a cup of coffee for my lawyer.
All of us love to talk so, therefore, we think we communicate. Talking is easy. Communicating well is difficult. Most of us take for granted our ability to communicate. But if you are going to be a professional – a paralegal working with other professionals – you have to learn to be an effective communicator with above average skills.
Communication is a complex process, and it is a challenge to put our internal perceptions, feelings, motives, etc. into meanings and words. We tend to misunderstand messages from others because we interpret them through our own attitudes, feelings, motives and experiences.
Good communicators make great paralegals!
Great paralegals are leaders!
According to research psychologists, the average one year old child has a three-word vocabulary. By 15 months children can speak 19 words. At two years of age most youngsters possess a working knowledge of 272 words. By age six the average child can communicate with 2562 words. The average adult speaks at the rate of 125 to 200 words per minute and up to 18000 words per day. This does not mean the messages you are receiving have been clearly relayed, that is what we are attempting to convey in one given day. What do you think your chances are of absorbing these many words and getting the correct message?
Why is it so important in the law firm and how can it help you to learn to communicate effectively?
Getting the point across accurately is just as important as the receiver absorbing the correct message being sent.
First of all, you now have joint comprehension. This is necessary because you must get the message across to someone else so that he or she understands your position. Good communication prompts someone to act in a way that meets an objection. Once the lawyer understands your message, he or she is motivated to behave in a certain way.
THOUGHT: How many times do we misinterpret simple messages because of our own perception of the sender’s meaning or intent? A message sent is only as good as the receiver’s perception of it.
Coming from the stone age myself when we used to use typewriters, we did not have e-mail. Thus, all communication was delivered face-to-face. We could watch the person’s face, look at their body language, and we would tell how the message was being delivered. Now we get a beep and up pops a message that usually is the start of disintegration of relationships.
I have had this happen to me so many times I have lost count. Lawyer is at desk trying to get organized and sends quick email i.e. “Where are the Smith interrogatories? They are due today.” I immediately think I am good at what I do, they are on his desk, and I knew they were due – does he think I am an idiot?
Here is a nutshell of communication:
- In communication the first thing you need is a sender. The sender is the person initiating the communication by writing the memo, placing the phone call, giving the speech or sending the e-mail.
- Then there is the statement, which is the message that the sender is trying to get across.
- The statement goes through the form of communication for that situation; i.e., letter, e-mail, face-to-face.
- The communication process then has a recipient, the person that the sender’s statement is aimed toward.
- Most of the time the sender anticipates a response from the recipient so that is the last component in the process.
Sounds simple! Not so. Resistance or obstacles are going to complicate things. Presuming that this is true, these are distinct possibilities:
- Even though the sender appears to be in control of the communication, this person is not immune to resistance. If you are the sender you must consider your own viewpoints or biases and the climate in which you are drafting your message.
- There can be resistance in the statement, specifically in the form of complicated or unsuitable ideas and words that can muddle the meaning. Thus the statement must be clear to avoid misunderstand.
- The form of the communication is important. You have to select from written, oral, visual, etc. Are you going to deliver the message in person or through a written document?
- The recipient also has a set of viewpoints or biases that may be completely different from the sender. You have to ask how they will accept the information. Do they need to receive the statement in a certain form so that it is conveyed right?
- And last, you will face resistance in the recipient’s response. Once they respond to your statement, you must determine if they understood the statement. This is probably the most important part. If you don’t verify right away that they correctly grasped your message, your communication is a lost cause. If the recipient responds rudely or doesn’t respond at all, this additional resistance must be dealt with immediately.
Now, let’s translate that into the working relationship between a lawyer and a paralegal. If you can understand your lawyer, his viewpoints, his work style, and how he or she likes to get the work to you, then you start understanding the communication style better. As a sender, the lawyer has an obligation to be clear in what is needed or wanted. However, the delivery is all in how you perceive the message.
We would all like to have the communication be “nice” or “warm and fuzzy” but it isn’t going to happen. The lawyer is used to delivering clear messages and usually short and to the point. Your job as the recipient is to figure out that is the style. Don’t put your own style on it. Just remember the lawyer is from Mars and probably doesn’t have the same level of oxygen going to the brain …thus you make allowances.
The second part of accepting communication is not to put any preconceived ideas of underlying messages. If the message is “I need this done today” – that is what it means. It doesn’t mean it is a demand but rather a delivery of a statement. The lawyer should not have to worry about hurting your feelings. By the same token, the lawyer probably doesn’t know what all is going on with your work. Your job is to take the message and turn it around into an information-seeking situation.
In the age of email, face-to-face discussions are not being had, which causes a lot of room for misinterpretation.
I tend to look for ways to drop the stress level when lawyers and paralegals try to communicate. I very much encourage face-to-face meetings at least twice a day where both can look at each other, deliver oral messages to each other, and seek out more information. This gives both of you a chance to watch body language and get clarification of additional information needed.
I also strongly urge both parties to quit presuming you know what the other person is thinking. Don’t take your attitude and make it someone else’s attitudes. And this is easy – if you think someone is mad simply walk in an office, state you would like a scheduled time to discuss some matters, and then hit the issue head on.
And let me give you a big hint! If you are addressing communication problems, don’t ever make it adversarial. You simply use words like, “When you (describe what is happening), I feel (how it makes you feel)”. You might be very surprised to find out the other person simply did not know how it makes you feel.
Second big hint! Paralegals tell me constantly you can’t change someone. The heck you can’t. Even working relationships that are not working have one benefit if you correct it, the work gets done better and people are less stressed. Thus you can change and you can change people if there is a reward! But it takes planning how to best approach the situation. I always tell paralegals not to walk in and hit the lawyer on the head. Give him or her a break. Ask for a time to talk about how to make the work flow better so the lawyer feels more in control. Tell your lawyer you have some thoughts you would like to discuss that would make you a winning team. Tell your lawyer you want him to excel at the firm and want to know how you can help. Then open the door. Set some parameters. Decide how you can best communicate together so that both sides feel in control.
There are many good courses on developing communication skills and I am simply giving you a much abbreviated version of what you need to know. If this is a problem with your relationship with your attorney get it out in the open, take some courses, or if you are in a large enough firm, ask them to do courses between lawyers and paralegals about communication skills.
And remember “Where there’s simplicity, words can be taken at face value. One says what one means and means what one says” (Albert Day).
If you are a paralegal who manages other people, you need to know that there are only four basic rules to management:
Expectations: You must let people know what your expectations are.
Tools: You must give people the tools they need to accomplish their job from good work equipment to good information.
Feedback: You must give people feedback, good and bad, on what is being delivered.
Accountability: You must hold people accountable for getting the job done within the parameters of the expectations.
Having said that, feedback between the lawyer and the paralegal is crucial. Feedback is information provided to another person to help him or her grow and improve. It is not intended to hurt. It is also intended to share with someone else what needs to be done that will allow the team to grow and improve. An open and honest atmosphere must exist.
True teams are an important source of feedback to one another. It is unfortunate that lawyers and paralegals are not comfortable giving feedback to each other. Who knows your professional strengths and weaknesses more than your lawyer?
Feedback is a positive tool. It loses its power to build and becomes destructive when used to judge, manipulate or control others. It must be descriptive rather than evaluative.
So how do you know when feedback should be given
(either by the lawyer or the paralegal)?
- It must be appropriate, relevant to the situation, will be helpful, and it is the right situation to share and have it understood.
- Usable – The feedback is focused on something that is within the receiver’s control.
- Requested – It is wanted or expected rather than imposed.
- It is timely – always given as close to the event as possible.
- Clear – It is very important that the sender checks with the receiver that the message was understood.
- Accurate – Make sure you have the facts and done your homework before you give feedback to someone. Don’t exaggerate or distort the message to suit your own purposes. If you do, your feedback will never be trusted.
How does this translate to a working relationship between a lawyer and a paralegal? Let’s take a typical situation that occurs regarding receiving discovery:
- It should be documented as received with deadline dates.
- There should be a process where the lawyer and the paralegal work out joint responsibilities.
- The initial response to discovery is usually done by the paralegal for the lawyer to review.
- The lawyer turns it around and hands back for finalization and signing or additional information.
- The client signs the discovery and it is all sent back within the 30 day period.
RIGHT? I don’t think so. I will bet money everyone here is frustrated with discovery because:
- Discovery comes in and lies on lawyer’s desk and is discovered when you are looking for something else.
- You have now used up valuable time getting the document.
- You are waiting for direction on certain answers.
- The lawyer keeps putting it aside.
- The client isn’t available.
- The lawyer comes out and says “get an extension” and the whole process starts all over again.
Think about using skills of relationships, communication and feedback this way:
- Ask for a meeting to develop a process that would get the discovery through the channels faster.
- Have a plan that takes control of the answers from the lawyer to you (relieves stress and helps the lawyer plan).
- Get an agreement that the lawyer will return to you within a certain timeframe and get a concurrence.
- Document your process and set up a manual. Make sure the lawyer agrees and get input so he or she feels they have helped in the process.
- Then implement it.
But once it doesn’t work – which it won’t because someone won’t follow the process – you give feedback. You ask for a second conference – lay out the problem and ask for a solution. You state what you believe the problem is and you give feedback on what happened and how it can be corrected.
HOW TO CHANGE A NON-WORKING RELATIONSHIP
You might start by asking your lawyer to read this article. At the very least it tells the lawyer you want a new tomorrow – a good professional working relationship. There are always exceptions to the rule, but I tend to find that lawyers want to be good leaders, good employers, and want to improve the process so they become efficient. Paralegals need to stop being enablers and be leaders with their lawyers.
Certainly there are some relationships that don’t work no matter how hard you try, and, if so, you need to think about moving on.
I always say the size of the firm dictates the way to handle the problem. Bigger firms will usually have someone to step in and see if they can correct working relationships, but smaller firms don’t have this luxury.
That is why you have to learn to communicate, lead, and give good feedback. You have to go to your lawyer at the appropriate time (not when he or she is headed out the door to the courthouse) and have your “ducks in a row.”
Being upfront and honest with your attorney about wanting to be more team-oriented, is the first step to a healthy and productive working relationship.
First of all, don’t expect the lawyer to be prepared to receive this new thought process – you want a team environment. I always suggest doing a written memorandum of a quick overview with some suggestions and ask for a time to talk. Be honest with the lawyer and tell them you would like to have a better relationship that would allow both of you to grow and learn together and help each other. Lawyers want to be prepared and this will allow your lawyer to think about it before you hit them with a blending of both worlds.
Put things on your lawyer’s level. Why would it benefit your lawyer to have a professional working relationship? Truth of the matter is statistically lawyers who do have good working relationships with their paralegals are more productive, more efficient and make more money. That is a no-brainer!
Talk out what are each of your strengths and weaknesses. Develop a strategy to blend the two. I always say the best lawyers I worked with praised my strengths and forgave my weaknesses. It is a two-way street. I am an organizer but most lawyers I have worked with are not. Thus, I used this to my advantage. I set up an organized system and gave the lawyer little responsibility. However, I was always one step ahead of the lawyer, and the lawyer came to depend on it. In return, the lawyer realized that I need information. Thus, the lawyer was always willing to “teach me” so I could better understand reasoning behind decisions. To this date I credit those excellent lawyers I worked with for allowing me to learn – because as I learned I became better and better and was able to provide the support they needed. They were never threatened by my desire for knowledge.
Tell your lawyer always what is important to you and what your expectations are and be willing to get the same information. Clearly repeat it to each other until you are on the same page. You won’t have 100% of what you want, but you will certainly have more than most.
As I am prone to do, I must be honest enough to tell you that there are simply some lawyers who do not want a team working environment with their paralegal. Only you can decide if this is the situation you are in. If it is and you know it, then get out. I will also tell lawyers the same thing – if you can’t work with your paralegal under any circumstances then change paralegals. THERE HAS TO BE A DESIRE ON BOTH PARTS TO BLEND THE PLANETS! If there is no respect for each position, there is no hope for change.
You will see an exhibit to this manuscript which I encourage you to do with your lawyer in an open and honest atmosphere. It is a fun exercise. Each of you fill one out and then exchange. Once you see where you can balance the team (the planets), you then make a plan on how to recreate a great working relationship.
Caution: If you in any manner start this process with a limited view, one in which you are not willing to accept constructive criticism, you are doomed. You may think this is unfair, but I always look at a way to get my lawyer to open up – looking for a solution. Then remember a good part of communication is listening – you may be getting some good messages.
However, if you can figure out how to take the two planets and merge the language, behavior, thinking, and reasoning process, you will certainly create a new culture that is a blend of the best of both worlds.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cheryl J. Leone
- CEO, Catalyst Group, Inc.; Catalyst is a national professional practice development for law firms with emphasis in value management and high performance training.
- Advisor and member of Management Boards for three major law firms
- Speaker, Author and Writer; published