There is one lesson I learned early in my life which has served me well personally and professionally: The Golden Rule. It was important in grade school, and is a life lesson that will carry you far. Treat others as you would yourself wish to be treated. The Golden Rule is a simple motto that makes us better people and professionals, but often it’s a little harder to put into practice. There are so many things that can go wrong in our professional lives, and many situations we can’t control (hard for many of us paralegals who are type A personalities). We can change the dynamic of a stressful environment to one that practices civility and empathy by simply remembering that being kind to people, no matter who they are, doesn’t cost us a thing. Our attorneys may be knee-deep in battle, but that doesn’t mean we also have to war with the staff on the other side.
Stop and Listen: Our clients are likely the most stressed people we are communicating with, and they often do not understand what is going on. Are they really upset about the email you sent them, or could it be that they don’t understand it? We take our knowledge for granted. Most clients, even the most sophisticated ones, have very little working legal knowledge, and what they know usually comes from television and movies. They expect because it’s what they see, that we’ll sign them up as clients in the morning, have a hearing at 2 p.m. and celebrate our victory before 5 p.m. Wouldn’t that be the life?! In reality, it’s our job to help them understand the process and how it will affect them. They are our clients because something has happened to them and they aren’t able to solve it on their own. When you take your paralegal hat off just for a moment and look at the world through their eyes, you gain a better understanding of how you can help. Be present, even when they are unhappy and it’s uncomfortable. The attorney-client relationship can benefit greatly if clients know they can call you to find out what is going on, or even just to talk through their issues. This of course is a fine line, because we aren’t allowed to give legal advice. Practice kindness and be willing to listen.
Be the Bridge: Attorneys are busy people, and sometimes have higher than necessary expectations about what they need (and want) from us. This can also be true of the opposing counsel. I have received sharply worded emails, often late at night that were, frankly uncalled for and unnecessary. I can count two times in my professional career that I responded back with the same tone and sharpness I was given, and to this day I regret it. I have learned to practice “the pause.” Pause before reading an expected email (especially when you know it’s going to contain bad news.) Pause before responding. It’s ok to capture your thoughts but maybe do them outside of outlook (like a blank page of Word) so that you can say what you want to, get it out and then delete. If after practicing “the pause” you still need to respond, pause again. Remember that outside of the “heat of the moment” your words will look different. Would you say the same thing if you knew for a fact your email would then be attached to a motion for sanctions, or worse, part of a state bar complaint? I also try to think about who my audience is, and how my message will be received. Practicing kindness applies to each thing you do, and especially your correspondence. You can be the bridge between your attorney and the world outside of your office simply by thinking about your audience and being kind in your delivery.
Take a Deep Breathe: Even after practicing kindness and patience, there will be people that are just not easy to work with. Take a deep breath, and remember this too is part of the process. If you can always remember that they are your client because they are under some type of stress either professionally or personally, it will help. I will admit that there have been times in my career as a paralegal that I let a snippy, biting client get the best of me. If you can reframe from the urge to “give it right back,” your relationships will be stronger. Let things roll off your back, lay down the irritation and remember that your ability to do so will indirectly keep you gainfully employed. Even the best paying clients can be difficult, and however miserable that makes our legal team, they are keeping the lights on. The same can also be said for the attorneys we work for and with. The majority of the time, their frustration is not at us, but the situation before us. Being the calm, focused member of the team and being the bridge between yourselves and the other side not only keeps things moving, but is the right thing to do.
Stephanie B. Elliott, NCCP is a senior litigation support paralegal for the law firm of McNair Law Firm in Charlotte. She specializes in litigation, and her experience encompasses commercial, corporate and complex business litigation, employment litigation, personal injury, insurance defense, and medical malpractice. She has experience with filings in the North Carolina Complex Business Court; State Court filings in counties across North Carolina, Federal Filings in the Western, Eastern and Middle districts of North Carolina, the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the Federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (Richmond, VA). Ms. Elliott is a faculty member of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Continuing Education Paralegal Certification Program, where she teaches Paralegal Profession and Legal Technology. She is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board and a faculty member of Gaston College’s Paralegal Program. Ms. Elliott received her B.S. degree in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 1998. She is a Paralegal Technology Post-Baccalaureate Diploma Graduate from Central Piedmont Community College. Ms. Elliott obtained her North Carolina State Bar Certification in 2005.