Paralegals: How to Communicate with Clients During All Phases of the Case

Paralegals can’t get away from the fact that everything we do involves communication. Whether it is communicating with a client, the court, a judge or even the local copy shop, we need to know how to communicate.  Paralegals are called on to be the liaison between clients, witnesses, experts, and counsel.  Strong communication and writing skills are essential in fulfilling this role.  This is not something that is easily taught and/or learned in a classroom.  For most of us, this is something we learn over time and/or while on the job.  As liaison, you must thoroughly understand the legal concepts of confidential communications, work-product, and conflicts of interest.  You must also understand the dangers of giving legal advice which is often sought.


Think about these tips when communicating with clients and the legal team: 

·       clarify your ideas before you communicate
·       identify and examine the true purpose of each communication
·       follow up your communication; be sure your actions mirror and support your communication
·       be mindful of overtones and use your time wisely 

Do not give legal advice in a client communication.  If you relay legal advice to a client, be sure your communication indicates the advice is from the attorney.  Understand attorney work-product doctrine.  Be mindful of potential conflicts of interest.  Educate yourself on concepts of confidential communications.  Do not predict the outcome of the client matter to a client.   

Here are three (3) ways a paralegal is often utilized to communicate with clients:

The Client Interview

Your role as a paralegal may be to conduct client interviews.  The general purposes of the client interview are to determine facts, to identify evidence, to locate leads for additional information, to assess damages and to evaluate the client as a witness.  A client interview may have additional specific purposes.  Determine the purpose of the interview.  Communicate that purpose both to the attorney before the interview and to the client during the interview.  Once the goals are set, prepare to conduct the interview and accomplish those goals.  The purpose of the prospective client interview is to determine the prospective client’s needs and to obtain facts and information which will assist the lawyer in determining whether to offer legal representation.  In addition, during the course of the client interview, you should sort out facts and determine the source, i.e. personal knowledge or otherwise develop leads, identify physical evidence and evaluate potential remedies.  Your role in the client interview will depend on the practice area, your experience and skill level, and the attorney’s practice habits.  You may be asked to conduct the interview alone or to assist the attorney in conducting the interview.

Preparing for the interview:

Research the facts and the law.  Read the file, including correspondence and client documents.  Prepare a chronology and/or cast of characters to assist you in grasping the facts of the case.  Understand the legal issues of the case.  Review the appropriate statutes, case law, etc.  Prepare the interview site.  The atmosphere must be professional and confidential.  If possible, arrange to conduct the interview in a conference room to avoid interruptions and to maintain a sense of confidentiality.  Make sure materials related to other cases are not in this client’s view.  Arrange to hold all calls.  Prepare an outline for the interview.  Determine what types of documents you would like the client to bring to the interview.  Communicate your document wish list to the client, along with confirmation of the time, date and location of the interview.  If there is time, follow any verbal communication with written communication.  Arrange for and anticipate a client’s special needs, if any.

Conducting the interview:

To conduct an effective interview, you must immediately gain the trust of the client and understand the client’s situation.  Although every interview is unique, all clients have problems and are probably worried or upset over the circumstances surrounding the lawyer’s representation.  Approach each interview with the understanding the client is in a crisis or stressful situation.  Put the client at ease by conducting the interview in a confidential and comfortable environment.  Eliminate any behavior that may be considered pressure. For example, avoid the traditional seating arrangement, in which the paralegal sits behind a desk with the client on the other side, reinforcing the authority image.  Instead, arrange the seats “catty-corner” using an end table or smaller desk.  Act relaxed, not nervous.  Maintain eye contact. Watch for facial and body language.  Maintain a sincere, interested attitude.  Having the ability to listen is essential to effective interviewing. 

Listening is not only hearing.  Effective listeners work at listening, resist distractions and judge content.  Effective listeners interpret, follow body language, paraphrase to check for understanding and do not let past experience, bias, expectation of what will be said or attitude distract them from listening. Let the client know you are on his or her side.  Be thorough, leaving the impression no stone has been left unturned and you will always be accessible.  Work to have the client place confidence in your ability.  During the course of the interview, determine the client’s needs.  What does the client expect, want or need?  What types of documents are in the client’s possession or control related to the matter at hand?  How many documents are there?  Where are the documents located?  If the documents are voluminous, determine the personnel resources of the client.  How can the documents be copied?  Are there personnel to assist in the collection of documents?  Communication is a two-way street.  

You must understand the client, and the client must understand you.  Modify your vocabulary to match the educational background of the client.  Avoid legal jargon.  Be alert for signals that the client does not understand something.  If you do not understand industry terminology, ask questions.  An interview should be conversational, with the client interviewee at ease.  Maintain eye contact with the client as much as possible during the interview.  Avoid distractions.  While note taking may be a distraction in the course of the interview, you must take notes, so do not be afraid to take outline form or shorthand notes using abbreviations.  Fill in the details immediately following the interview.  Use ice-braking techniques to put the client at ease and conduct an effective interview.  

Offer the client a beverage. Talk “small talk” on the way to the conference room or location of the interview.  Do not discuss case matters in the hallway or restrooms - this gives the appearance of a lack of confidentiality or professionalism.  To get the client talking and more relaxed, begin the interview with preliminary data and routine information such as addresses, telephone numbers, employment and educational information.  State the purpose of the interview.  Begin the body of the interview with a narrative.  Ask open-ended questions to encourage the client to narrate his or her story.  Narrative questions begin with “Tell me about…”  Obtain details later.  An interview may be more productive after the client has been allowed to say what he or she wants to say.  Listen and watch while you interview.  How is the client reacting to your questions?  Listen for hints or leads to other information.  Be flexible, not tied to your outline.  

Do not ask difficult questions at the beginning of the interview.  Do not alienate the client with blunt, direct questions.  Avoid suggesting answers, ask non-leading questions such as who, what, when, how and where.  Follow up on details after the narrative has been told.  To ensure the client remains at ease during the interview, ask “why” questions carefully.  “Why” questions sometimes evoke defensiveness.  Rather than “why” ask “what were your reasons?”  Focus on only one issue per question.    

As you ask questions, be supportive.  Nod your head.  Paraphrase the client’s responses from time to time to check for understanding.  Explore judgment questions, such as time and distance, so that judgment statements do not trap the client.  Role-play time and distance to ensure the accuracy of the statements.  Taking accurate notes is essential for an effective interview.  Any discussions of fees (i.e. trust account and retainer) should be discussed with the attorney. Have the client execute any authorizations (medical, tax, employer) at the interview and explain why you want these items.

Following the interview:

Immediately after the interview, prepare a detailed summary memorandum.  The summary memorandum must reflect all relevant details, including the date and time of the interview, documents collected, witness names, addresses and telephone numbers.  It must also contain information on damages, detailed information concerning the client’s knowledge of the facts related to the matter leads to additional information and a to-do list that describes documents to be collected and investigation to perform.  The communication with the client doesn’t end after the interview.  You will need to follow up on any requests made during the interview.

Discovery:  

A paralegal will be called on to assist the client in answering discovery (interrogatories, request for production of documents, requests for admissions, etc.)  Good lines of communication are needed in order to obtain relevant information in order to prepare substantial responses to all discovery requests.  All discovery requests received should be copied and sent to the client for only their review at this point.  You should then go through the discovery requests and prepare draft responses based on information in the file.  Once complete, contact the client to obtain any additional, more specific and/or updated information in order to complete any incomplete responses.  Inform the client you have prepared draft responses which will then be provided to the attorney to review and make further revisions.  Advise the client you will be sending them a copy of the draft answers/responses which they will need to review and confirm all information is correct. 

You will need to answer any questions the client may have about a particular way a response was prepared, the style and/or the format of the answers/responses.  Ask the client to execute the verification/certification and send back so the answers/responses can be finalized and sent to the other side so the litigation can proceed.

Deposition: 

Paralegals also play a big role in coordinating the client’s deposition.  You will need to again answer any questions the client may have about what a deposition is, the purpose of a deposition and types of questions ordinarily asked during a deposition.  If a client has never been deposed, you need to discuss in detail the process of a deposition so they are better prepared and more relaxed.  You will have to coordinate the deposition preparation meeting between the client and attorney.  

Normally a meeting a day or two before the deposition works best to keep the preparation fresh in the client’s mind.  If too much time passes between the preparation and the deposition, the client may forget much of what was discussed during the meeting.  Once the deposition and preparation meetings are scheduled, be sure to confirm in writing the date, time, location and provide directions.  It is also a wise idea to allow time for a brief preparation meeting just before the deposition begins.  Be sure to calendar the dates so you can call the client the day before to remind and confirm.

Trial:  

Trial preparation is another area where the attorney will rely heavily on the paralegal’s assistance in communicating with the client.  You will be in control of making all arrangements for the trial preparation meetings, providing the client with preparation assignments (for example to review their deposition transcript, discovery responses, exhibits, etc.), and coordinating a mock trial (see Title V, section C).  You will also be the person who the client will lean on during the course of the trial.  

While the attorney is busy preparing for opening/closing, next witness or the next day, the client will need someone to calm their nerves, answer any questions (again never predicting the outcome of the case or giving legal advice) and warning the client of potential dangers which surround them in a courtroom.  You have to remember you have been to court over and over again but the client, on the other hand, may never have seen the inside of a courtroom except perhaps from television.   

Clients need to be told not to talk to jurors in or outside the courtroom during the course of the trial, instructed on appropriate actions in and outside of the courtroom which include no chewing gum/eating candy in front of the jury (you don’t want them to think that you think you are at the movies), no shacking head in either a yes or no position or making faces while witnesses are on stand and not to feel too relaxed where you are saying too much in front of the other side.  

These little things that you know to do and not to do in the courtroom comes second nature to us but clients need quite a bit of guidance in this unusual setting.  Jurors watch everything during the trial, not just the evidence of the case.  Jurors watch the attorney, attorney’s staff, client and even your own expert’s behavior.  Jurors will watch the way your client looks, walks, talks and acts in and outside of the courtroom.  So the client needs to be aware of those potential dangers.

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