Advancing Paralegal Communication Skills
Having excellent communication skills is critical in the paralegal profession. A paralegal’s day is filled with drafting motions, writing summaries of depositions, discussing the project status with an attorney, corresponding by email, telephone calls to clients and vendors, taking notes or writing memos – the list is endless. Let’s look at 7 C’s to consider in your paralegal communication skills.
Learning to communicate your point clearly is about more than just learning how to write grammatically correct sentences. Say, for example, that you want to convince your attorney to purchase new software that will increase the team’s efficiency on cases. How do you write a request that is compelling and persuasive? Do you know how to summarize everything that the software does, the cost analysis and how you will roll it out to the team? Can you write about it or speak about it in such a way that convinces the higher-ups that it would be a good purchase? This is something that can only be accomplished with excellent paralegal communication skills.
Whether you are communicating verbally or in writing, try to make sure that every communication includes all of the following 7 C’s.
To be clear, try to minimize the number of ideas in each email and in each sentence within the email. Make sure that it’s easy for your reader to understand your meaning. People shouldn’t have to read between the lines and make assumptions on what you are trying to say.
Ask yourself: what is your purpose in communicating with this person? If you’re not sure, then your audience won’t be sure either.
Also, be clear about any attachments. Do not send the attachment without any explanation for what it is or why you have sent it. This may make both the email and the attachment look like spam. Make sure to note how large the attachment is—if it is very large, explain the size of the attachment so they know it is supposed to be that large, and it is not a potential virus.
As paralegals working with lawyers, we read briefs, demand letters, contracts and all kinds of other written communication that can be quite lengthy and filled with a lot of legal jargon. It can be far too easy to start developing that writing habit in your other communications, like emails and memos.
When you’re concise in your communication, you stick to the point and keep it brief. Being conscious of time is especially important in the legal industry. Your audience doesn’t have the time and does not want to read six sentences when you could communicate your message in three.
Unless the topic necessitates a very long email, keep your correspondence as short and to the point as possible. This might mean cleaning up long email chains, as well as whittling down what you need to say in the email to the most basic points.
You do not want your recipient to miss an important point because it was buried in long paragraphs. If it has to be a long email, then separate the topics with a topic title (underlined) and a call to action for each topic.
The more confident you are when you communicate, whether verbally or in writing, the more confident people will be in you. Confidence builds trust and credibility.
One way to have confidence in your communication is through research and knowing your subject matter. With adequate knowledge of a subject, you’ll appear more confident when communicating. Confidence is even more important in the legal profession. There may be a time when you have to communicate with your supervising attorney about a problem on a file or a transaction. If you have thoroughly researched how the problem occurred and potential solutions, you will be confident in your communication of the problem.
Mistakes with spelling, tone, and grammar can make you look careless. That’s why it’s essential to check all of your communications before you send them.
Email may not seem as formal as sending a physical letter, but it is, in many ways. This means that you should not just type out the email and send it out without reading it over. This is your opportunity to catch any grammar mistakes or typos, as well as to clean up the email, make sure it is formatted in a way that is easy to read, and only contains the most applicable points.
Don’t rely on spell-checkers: they won’t pick up words that are used incorrectly. Instead, proofread your work, and use a dictionary to look up any words that you’re unsure about.
It’s easier to do a thorough proofread by printing the document and doing a line-by-line review (add in a ruler like your college professor did!).
Proofread your email thoroughly, at least once, before hitting send. And proofread your subject, line, too. It is the first thing the recipient will read, so it should be as spotless as the rest of your email.
If you’d like to read more about email etiquette and more on paralegal communication skills, check out our blog article Paralegal Email Etiquette Tips.
There are three important elements to being credible in your communication: integrity, competence and sound judgment. All three elements are necessary for credibility to exist. Think of the very competent expert witness without integrity. They may be competent, but they will lose credibility without integrity. Alternatively, think about the very competent expert witness without sound judgment. They frequently change their minds and their opinions last minute. This also loses credibility.
Methods to increase credibility include:
- Building a reputation for truthful and ethical behavior
- If you make a mistake, be truthful about it
- Avoiding snap judgments
- Staying current on the trends within your industry and company
In a complete message, the audience has everything they need to be informed and, if applicable, to be able to take action. It can be difficult to balance complete with concise. Concise does not mean that you leave out information. The message still has to be complete. Remember that if you include all 7 C’s, you are sending written communication that is concise and complete at the same time.
- Does your message include a “call to action,” so that your audience clearly knows what you want them to do?
- Have you included all relevant information – contact names, dates, times, locations, and so on?
Courteous communication is friendly, open, and honest. There are no hidden insults or passive-aggressive tones. Email is sometimes viewed as an informal method of communication. Don’t fall into the trap of letting your emotions write the email for you. If you are angry or upset about the subject of the email, type it out, save it as a draft, and come back to it the next day.
The key to advancing your written communication skills is to get into the practice of looking at each piece of written communication and asking yourself if the communication follows all seven C’s. Whether it is a 2-sentence email or a 3-page letter, review it and ask yourself if all seven C’s have been checked.
Finally, I would like to pass along some of the best advice I received early in my career from a lawyer I worked with. He said “don’t ever put something in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the local newspaper or in the firm’s newsletter, because it may just end up there.” Some great advice, especially given the recent cyber security and hacking.