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By: Anieta McCracken, CP (Guest Blogger)
Happy Double Monday – once removed, TPS Nation! We know the title of today’s piece caught your eye. First question? What sanity! Ha ha. Anieta is here to tell us about how to save our sanity…or at least what’s left of it, anyway!
Drink that fabulous beverage and delve right in, my paralegal friends.
Ringing phone. Visitors. I had stopped and started the same letter a half dozen times. Those pesky interruptions were not letting me get my work done. I was frustrated. But the frustration was my own fault. I had forgotten my mission.
A paralegal’s mission is to identify and meet clients’ goals. Meeting deadlines and completing tasks is only a means for reaching that goal, not the goal. Keeping that perspective is vital to maintaining the proper response toward interruptions. Instead, let interruptions do their work. Analyze them. See what they might teach you.
Clients are not ignorant. But they do lack knowledge in the law. Therefore never act immediately on a stated goal. Many times a client asks for what they worked for someone else or acts upon the advice of a friend. Ask for their story. Ask for their goals in their terms. Or perhaps, what do you think will happen if we do xxx for you? When they answer, is that what you want to happen? Maybe they don’t really want that divorce, but they don’t know of other options. Maybe they don’t really need a will; perhaps other forms of estate planning will meet their need.
A couple questions about their working life might provide clues as to how to communicate procedure and needs in a language they understand. After telling several clients one day that they needed file a Motion to Amend at the Clerk’s office, I found I had to repeat that phrase to every one of them. Not one repeated it back correctly the first time. Trying a new tactic, I said to one client, “I am so sorry. I said that way too fast. Let me start over. When you go to the pharmacist for medication, you give the pharmacist a prescription with the exact name of the medication needed. That’s similar to what happens in government. I am going to write a phrase on a piece of paper; you tell the clerk that I said this is what you need. Don’t even try to say it. When they see the written phrase, they will know you asked for help. When exact term for the document you need, they will be much more likely to help.” Problem solved. Lesson learned.
Playing phone tag? Don’t. When leaving a phone message, slowly and distinctly state your name, place of employment, and phone number. Then leave a concise but detailed message stating the exact reason for the call and the response needed. “Should you get my voice mail, please leave a detailed message stating…” Then end the call by repeating name, place of employment and phone number one more time. Never ask a person just to return your call; doing so is a time waster.
And, no, that client you just spoke to will not remember what you said. So don’t expect them to do so. Design forms and checklists by type of law for commonly needed tasks. Then hand the form to the client with the appropriate boxes checked (keep a copy for yourself). And tell them to bring that form when they return. For example, diversion clients agree to perform two to three of six common tasks. All six are listed on a diversion checklist; those the client is expected to complete are checked. A blank for the due date is also included. Another example: Clients wanting to file a petition for custody need six basic pieces of information; when making an appointment, they are given a form with those items listed and a blank for writing in the appointment date, time, and name of the intake worker.
If you find several clients asking basically the same questions, take a good hard look at your form letters, forms, and informational literature. Compare the written message to your standard verbal answer. Most likely the written material needs tightening and a conversational tone. Look for “to”, “and”, and other clarity robbers. Look at the form of the sentences: subject-verb combinations are much easier to understand than other sentence structures. NOT: Being unable to find a record of . . . in your file, a copy of … needs to be sent immediately. INSTEAD: I reviewed your file but did not find ….; please send a copy of … by . . .” Bold and capitalize deadline dates. Bullet task lists. Make written documents as simple as possible. . Calendar the follow up date for yourself and follow up on time.
When sending an appointment reminder letter, state “please bring this letter to your appointment.” It is very frustrating to have a client appear at your desk with no more information than “I am here because I received a letter.” When questioned, oftentimes they don’t remember the contents of the letter, the person they are to see, or even the department the letter came from. Trying to find that information from a database wastes valuable time.
To ensure that letter or document comes with the client, encourage clients to place copies of all documents and letters regarding a matter in a folder. Better yet, provide a labeled folder for that purpose. Or ask the client to keep a basket or container by the door they enter after getting the mail, and drop everything related to the case in that basket. Then ask that they bring those documents to every visit. Odds are, using this system, the most recent document, the one the receptionist or you will need, will be the one on top since most people dump things on top of a pile.
Finally, remember common courtesy. Say “please”, as in “I need some more information; within two days, please call back with the names (and please spell them) of your children, their dates of birth, and their social security numbers. You are welcome to provide that information through my confidential voice mail.” When a call is returned, say “Thank you for returning my call.” If someone calls back with requested information, thank them. If they thank you for doing something, say you are very welcome.
Oh… please excuse me. My phone is ringing. May I get back to you later?
(Very funny, Anieta! See what happens when you ask a busy, savvy paralegal to write for you? ha ha. We know all paralegalkind can relate to that one. Ring, ring…)
Anieta McCracken is an office services assistant for the 26th District Court Service Unit of Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice. As such she tracks and follows up on the progress of juveniles in the case management and diversion programs. Her legal experience is primarily in domestic relations, wills and estates, and bankruptcy. A NALA certified paralegal and graduate of Kaplan University’s paralegal program, she taught and chaired the paralegal department of National College for over three years. She is a past-president of the Shenandoah Valley Paralegal Association.
You can view Aneita’s LinkedIn profile at: http://www.linkedin.com/in/anietamccracken
Do you have any additional time-saving or better yet, sanity-saving tips to share, TPS readers? If so, hit that comment button and share away!
We’ll see you on that coveted, paralegal holiday otherwise known as “Friday!” Until then, do what you can to save your time…and sanity! In the event you aren’t able to, remember this: You are not alone.
Nope. Not even close. (Me + you + Nation of Sanity-Deficient Paralegals = :)) See you soon!