communicating with an angry person.

This happens a lot to lawyers. We have to work with angry people. Generally, they aren’t angry with us (though sometimes they are). But they are angry. And talking with an angry person requires different communication techniques than talking with a non-angry person.

I happened across this article today — and it is spot-on re: how to deal when you’re face-to-face with the angry client or opposing counsel.

The piece is short and well worth a read. Highlights especially apropos for lawyers:

  • Remain calm and try to calm the other person. Don’t let the other person’s anger become your anger
  • Speak simply. Do not rely on official language or complex terminology.
  • Avoid communicating a lot of technical or complicated information when emotions are high.
  • Listen carefully. Do not interrupt or offer unsolicited advice or criticism.

Also addressed: nonverbal communication. Much of what we say is communicated not with words, but through our expressions, posture, and physical position (e.g. standing, seated) in relation to the other. Two key points:

  • Keep body language calm. Have a relaxed posture with unclenched hands and an attentive expression.
  • Get on the same physical level as the other person, e.g. both of you are standing or both sitting.

Any other techniques you’ve found helpful in communicating with an angry person? 

but what do our clients want?

Since 2009, I’ve offered some form of an extranet to clients for sharing documents, communicating, and general collaboration. In fact, the moment I learned about extranets, I was mildly obsessed. The concept seemed to solve so many problems: no deleted emails or lost attachments, a clear chain of communication, and security. One place for everything!

The security point was (and still is) really important to me, especially when it comes to sharing sensitive documents and communication. Email is not the place for this. Even if you use encryption on your end, never lose sight of the fact that the minute you hit send, you have completely lost control. Even encrypted email, once decrypted, is subject to the recipient’s whims. I live by this golden rule: don’t put it in (or attach it to) an email unless you’re okay with the content appearing on page one of the New York Times.

My extranet journey started with an investigation into VLOTech, the predecessor of the Total Attorneys Suite that includes a client-facing portal. I ultimately opted for an extranet product by PBWorks that predated its current offering, PBWorks Legal Hub.

For a couple of years I diligently created PBWorks workspaces for business and estate planning clients in my transactional practice. Configuring the workspaces was somewhat cumbersome, which made me feel all the more invested in having clients use them. (Note: I’ve tooled around in a free PBWorks LegalHub account and configuring a workspace is no longer so cumbersome).

I loved my extranets. My clients did not. Well, for the most part. Those who did like it, like my developer and my creative clients, were already accustomed to using a cloud-based collaboration tool. Everyone else? They would log in to the workspace, but they didn’t use it to communicate. They sent me emails. They didn’t use it to share documents; they sent them as email attachments.

Why? Because my clients want me to meet them where they are: email. I even had clients who would respond to a message I posted in our workspace by sending me an email instead of leaving a message in the workspace.

And this behavior applied no matter the extranet platform I used. I eventually abandoned the original PBWorks platform because (a) it was so cumbersome to use, and (b) it was expensive, especially for something that clients didn’t view as a value add. I found more intuitive (and less expensive) platforms, but the underlying problem continued. No one but me (and some other like-minded lawyers I collaborated with) really wanted to use them.

What I’ve realized is that client extranets can be a fantastic tool for lawyers and firms, especially when part of an integrated platform that ties it directly into case management and billing. Relying on too many different platforms and software programs is a leading cause of inefficiency in any practice. Consolidating functions and tying them tightly together promotes efficiency, productivity, and sanity.

But this is a benefit to the lawyers.

Our clients aren’t interested in our integrated platform. Our clients want us to meet them where they are. They already have to log into too many accounts. When we ask them to add another, they ask, “Why?”

Well, there are very good reasons — which I explain to my clients:

  • Transparency: locating everything (documents, communication, calendars, billing records) in a single place online makes it easy for everyone to know where things stand in a matter.
  • Efficiency: clients have access 24/7 to their case/project information, and don’t have to spend time looking through email chains or attachments.
  • Improved communication: by locating all “discussions” (whether via an IM or email-type interface) in a single spot, clients are far less likely to ask the same question twice, and are able to find the relevant information when they need it.
  • Customization: designing and using the workspace in ways that best fit the client’s (and the matter’s) needs should improve the client’s overall experience.

Even knowing these things, clients generally don’t use the extranet. They prefer to use their own email for everything. (Surprise!) So for most clients I bypass the extranet, and honor their request to use email (while still following my golden rule, above). But I’ve tweaked the process a bit: for example, I use links (with expiration dates) to secure cloud platforms for sharing documents instead of attaching documents to email messages.

Despite all of this, I’m certain that others are having a different experience with extranets in their practices.  A survey conducted by ILTA in 2010 reports on client extranet use by the 49 firms surveyed. The results describe the value add to clients and suggest client satisfaction with extranets. Worth noting: all but one of the firms surveyed (PDF) has 50+ attorneys, and 16 have more than 700.

But I wonder if these results are widely indicative. A current consulting client (a firm recently started by three ex-large firm attorneys) responded this way when I suggested that they consider a client extranet for sharing the voluminous number of document revisions with one particular (corporate) client: “The company already has its own extranet. The last thing our clients want to do is log into someone else’s. They prefer email. So we use email.”

Anecdotal, yes. But telling.

Which leads me to a conclusion: cloud platforms that offer client extranet features (integrated with other practice management features) are a potential boon to all attorneys. Solo and smaller firms, who likely work with individuals as opposed to large entities, can benefit internally from the efficiency and productivity features of such platforms. But they may find their clients are less likely to use the extranet, preferring the platforms they’re already using (like email). And big firms may find that their corporate clients don’t want yet another place to log into, either. Why? They, too, just may prefer to be met where they are.

I don’t discourage anyone from considering an extranet, though, especially one that’s part of a larger practice management platform. Individual success will depend heavily on the type of practice as well as clients served. My experience may not at all be predictive of another attorney’s or firm’s. Although I do hope that firms consider the lessons I’ve learned when planning for the adoption and integration of an extranet into the workflow, and take clients’ preferences and needs into account.

And perhaps some of the extranet platform designers may start considering what our clients want, as well.

Here’s some solid advice for anyone wanting to sell a service or a product in the 21st century: “Build something just for the people who matter. Relevance is the new remarkable.”

Which leads to a suggested query: how can we meet clients where they are and make the extranet relevant to the client’s experience?

This post first appeared on the ABA’s Law Technology Today Blog.

on receiving criticism.

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Criticism sucks. Would you agree? In my experience, most folks do. It’s not particularly fun or enjoyable. It’s perceived as negative. It makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s tough on our tender lawyer egos.

So we avoid it. Both accepting it and giving it (at least effectively).

But it’s also an incredibly effective communication and personal growth tool. You ignore this power at your own peril.

Following up on yesterday’s brief post, I’m interested in exploring criticism precisely because it is both so important and so avoided.

The power lies in our ability to transform the negative feelings criticism elicits into positive results. Perhaps not easy, but definitely not impossible.

An inspiration? This article suggests we look to the Japanese martial art Aikido, which has a single goal: defend yourself and simultaneously protect your attacker from injury. A practitioner of Aikido does something amazing when faced with an attack: he incorporates its energy and momentum and redirects it. Without hurting the attacker.

Sounds like a crazy-effective communication technique, doesn’t it? Yes!

Here’s how it works: when you’re “attacked” with criticism (from your boss, co-worker, a client, your spouse, etc.), have the presence of mind to defend yourself without harming the underlying relationship with the criticizing party. Then, look for (and at) the underlying truth in the criticism, and not just how it’s being delivered. Learn from this.

Try these four steps:

1. Determine the purpose of the criticism. If constructive, then move on to step 2. If destructive (intended solely to focus on your shortcomings and very clearly violating this rule of criticism), IGNORE.

2. Analyze the validity of the criticism. Really wrap your mind around what is being said to you. Is there anything there that’s valid and that you should adopt?

3. Define the corrective action (if needed): If purpose and validity considerations warrant, then figure out how to correct and just do it. As importantly, if you’ve concluded that no corrective action is needed, then explain this (and why) to the criticizing party.

4. Learn from the critique. Think about what you learned through the corrective action and consider this an additional tool for being a better lawyer, spouse, parent, friend. Learn from it, as it probably will apply in future situations.

[Go here for the source of these suggestions, as well as some additional tips. Such as: don’t waste time getting angry, especially if the criticism is a negative personal attack. MOVE ON.]

Giving effective criticism is as much an art as receiving it. Stay tuned for more on that topic.

be intentional.

Today, with intention, I’ve decided that I am qualified to opine on this: live intentionally, and your life will be more like what you want it to be.

Without intention, life is much less likely to happen in the way you wish it to happen.

Yes, I’m giving you this advice. Even though I question daily whether I am qualified to advise anyone on anything, really.*

You will find no links in this post to scientific or other support for this proposition. Simply my observation. My proposal. That whatever it is you seek is more likely to be if you spend your days with intention.

What this looks like? Well, that’s different for each of us. So, no “do these five things and you will be living an intentional life.” Nope, it’s not that easy. Or that hard.

For me? Living intentionally means that I spend some time each day pondering the what if. I visualize what it means to be wherever it is I want to be, and ponder further on what it will take to get there. With intention, I move forward. Whatever that may mean, on a given day.

Some days, that path is crystal clear. Others (most?) it’s murkier than the pond I used to swim in as a child.

I spend a lot of time talking to lawyers (and other really smart people) who are in various places in life, personally and professionally. A common thread? Those who live with intention focus less on the negative and more on the positive. They’re more likely to be close to where they think they want to be.

This truth is born out on those days that I’m able to do the same.

So, my advice for today: live with intention. Practice with intention. Don’t simply exist. BE what and who you wish to be. Even on the murky days. Especially on the murky days.

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*Despite the fact that I have a masters in communication, a law degree (from a top 20 school, no less), have been practicing law for 16 years, and taught communication at the university level. Despite the fact that I regularly consult with really smart people about how they can do and be even better in whatever it is that they want to do and be.

I’m not throwing all of this out there to convince you that I’m “qualified” to give you this advice. Perhaps I’m throwing it out there to convince myself.? Sometimes I hide behind these letters. Even when I know that they aren’t who I am. At best, they represent some work I did.