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By: Jamie Collins

I found myself on a call with an insurance adjuster the other day. Not an uncommon occurrence in my corner of the paralegal world, although I make a valiant effort to avoid antagonistic phone calls as much as possible. I can usually see when they’re headed my way. The kind of call that starts as normal, takes a hard left, and speeds into uncomfortable territory in a matter of zero to six seconds, flat.

Within seconds of being on this particular call, the adjuster became somewhat aggressive, began to spew an antagonistic version of case facts, and was attempting to walk me (the innocent, professional paralegal person in search of her sanity and next tall iced tea) off the edge of a talking cliff. Yes, a talking cliff. This is where an individual on the phone tries his or her best to get you to say things you should not say: about a client’s case, particular issue, history, set of facts, and the list goes on.

Having spent 16 years working in the legal profession, I quickly came to the realization that this scenario (i.e., the thwarting of case facts in the general direction of said competent paralegal – party of one) was occurring. I immediately let the adjuster know the conversation between she and I was coming to an end. Words carefully selected and uttered in a courteous and professional tone. I believe my exact wording was something along the lines of, “I believe this call is over my head and you are going to need to speak with [my supervising attorney] about this particular issue. He is more familiar with this particular case than I am. [Not entirely true, but it sounded good.] I will have him call you shortly.”

Click.
Down the phone receiver went.
And into the esquire’s office I went.

Thinking back to what it was like to field these types of calls in the earlier years of my paralegal career, I realized that verbally articulating one’s self away from the verbal cliff (a/k/a a professional trap in a phone medium), is a skilled art form. When done well, it is 100% effective.

But if a paralegal fails to recognize that she now finds herself driving in a convertible, top-down, scarf-covered hair blowing in the wind, SPF-15, big smile pasted across her face, about to drive over a cliff, well…she just might hit the gas pedal (open her big mouth, say a lot of words) and accelerate right on over it – the edge of the professional cliff. And who wants that?

Not me. Not you. Not anyone.

So after reflecting upon this fun little phone call and my past experience in dealing with this particular type of call (the personal grave digging kind), I felt compelled to share a few tips with our readers. Keep these tips in mind if you ever find yourself waving to Thelma and Louise, standing near a cliff’s edge in your corner of the work world.

No one can force you to speak. In other words, a person can ask you to answer the same question 12 times, in 6 different ways, become aggressive or verbally hostile or act as though you are a complete and total moron for not offering the information he wants or otherwise complying with his or her verbal requests for the information being sought, but this person absolutely CANNOT force you to speak. (Quite literally.) (Seriously, he can’t.) (It’s true.) Only you are in control of what comes out of your mouth.

And more importantly, what doesn’t.

Are you with me here? No words that could hurt you, your client or your attorney/firm shall exit your mouth.

Visualize the cliff.  If you ever find yourself of a call with a pushy person – visualize the cliff – decide you are not going to drive off of it verbally, informationally or otherwise (no way, no how); navigate yourself away from that cliff’s edge by ending the call, routing the individual to someone better suited to handle that issue or call (an attorney or more experienced paralegal); or find your way out of the conversation in a polite fashion.

Remain professional. Be courteous. But don’t even think about hitting that gas pedal, my friend. Do not be verbally bullied. And above all else, don’t say ANYTHING you aren’t 100% comfortable saying to an individual (think: adjuster, client, opposing attorney, etc.), regardless of how aggressive or friendly he or she might be in an attempt to extricate information, details or legal advice from you. It’s not happening.

Remember, you are the sworn keeper of your own words.  Again, you are in charge of what you do or do NOT say. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Period.

Immediately tell your attorney about the call. In the event you find yourself on the other end of a “cliff” call, be sure to tell your attorney about the general topic, gist of the conversation and the individual’s general tone and demeanor, so he or she can address or diffuse it accordingly.

Live to drive another day.  Hopefully, en route to Starbucks, a gourmet cupcake shop, White House Black Market, your humble abode or an all-inclusive, Hawaiian beach vacation (minus the tropical storms). But either way, you’ll walk out the doors of that law firm knowing you handled that difficult phone call like a pro, with your head held high, professional integrity intact, your supervising attorney’s trust…

And your foot on the gas pedal, full throttle.

_____

We hope you enjoyed today’s post! Do you have any additional tips to add to the list?  Hit that comment button and tell us about ’em.

(Be sure to wave goodbye to Thelma on your way out of the parking lot.)