Things I Learned at CERA, by Mike Walters

Michael Walters

Things I Learned at CERA

By Mike Walters, Legal Hotline Managing Attorney, Pro Seniors, Inc., Project Manager, CERA. 

I had a general, private law practice when I began working part-time, as a hotline attorney at Pro Seniors in 2000. I quickly discovered that hotline advice was well suited to my personality. I had always been able to convey legal advice to clients in a “down to earth” manner. I knew enough about different areas of law to be able to speak to clients on just about any legal issue. I was used to doing my legal research quickly.

The Legal Hotline advice line also suited my weaknesses as an attorney. I have an unfortunate tendency to be glib, I always sound definitive, even when I am unsure about the answer, and I have a face made for the telephone. All of these strengths and weaknesses played perfectly into a 30-minute legal advice call, and I soon became overconfident in my abilities as a hotline attorney.

When I accepted the full-time manager position at Pro Seniors in 2006, I really thought I had learned everything I needed to know to do hotline advice. My early management style was to apply what I knew to the other attorneys on the hotline. “Good” hotline advice was the advice I would have given in the same situation. Variance from my style was likely to engender criticism.

The Pro Seniors Legal Hotline was to be a model of “professionalism,” using my guideposts. Professionalism, meaning that the clients were called on time, the advice provided was accurate, and to the extent possible, the clients had a good experience. I was cynical about anything that might be considered “touchy-feely” and I was proud of my frugality. Conferences were a waste of money. Scholarly articles on management and hotline policy were a waste of time. A legal hotline should, to the extent possible, be run like a business, providing a service.

That was the person who joined CERA as a project specialist in 2014. Shortly after joining CERA, I began working on projects, ranging from the annual Equal Justice Conferences, writing articles for the Hotline Connection, and participating in numerous webinars emphasizing legal hotline work. The experience, in addition to the wise guidance of colleagues such as Keith Morris, Shoshanna Erlich, Mary Haberland, Ellen Cheek, and Laurie Heer-Dale, taught me what I didn’t know.

  1. Legal hotlinearen’t producing widgets. 

Clients come from a variety of backgrounds, they have different levels of orientation, and they come to a hotline call in different states of mind. Any hotline policy which fails to tailor the advice to the specific client, taking into account the severity of the client’s problem, and the orientation of the client, is deficient. The primary consideration in any hotline call should be to make the legal advice “client-centered.”

  1. Hotline attorneys aren’t producing widgets. 

One of the advantages of a legal hotline is the variety of attorneys, with different personalities, working on the hotline. Some attorneys are extremely empathetic to clients, taking extra time to let the client tell the story in the client’s own way, even if it means the call may go overtime. Other attorneys are “all business” and are skilled at asking the client questions designed to elicit the relevant facts quickly and deliver the legal advice efficiently.

Any experienced hotline attorney has the ability to “shift” the style somewhat to suit the client, but there will always be variances in style, dependent on the personality of the attorney. This is a strength of a legal hotline. Particularly with experienced screening staff, clients can be matched with an attorney who best fits the client’s personal circumstances.

Managers should encourage diversity in personalities on the hotline, and within reason, should accommodate variance in the number of calls taken in a specific time period. The “slowest” attorney may be providing the most important help to the clients.

3) Conferences are valuable.

I attended four Equal Justice Conferences in my time with CERA, and the information I learned at those conferences were invaluable to me as a manager. I became a better manager because I learned: technical innovations that saved our hotline immeasurable time and money, how to better accommodate clients with diminished capacity, and I learned substantive law that helped our hotline staff give better advice to our clients. I also met many colleagues from the hotline and Legal Service communities who imparted wonderful wisdom and experience to me.

4) Training for hotline attorneys is critical.

New legal issues are always arising, and sharing information among experienced hotline attorneys is invaluable, even for legal problems that recur on the hotline. On a hotline, it is difficult to organize substantive training for ongoing and emerging legal issues because of the small staff, modest funds, and limited time. A technical support organization such as CERA allows legal hotlines to pool their resources and provide important training to hundreds of hotline attorneys across the nation, at an affordable cost. Our employees at Pro Seniors have benefitted greatly from the dozens of webinars presented by CERA over the years.

5) The hotline community is supportive.

Legal Hotline employees love sharing information. All one need do is ask, and colleagues will happily share tips, research, policy manuals, common sense advice on management, and wisdom on how best to help clients. The ongoing communication among hotlines, facilitated by CERA and NASLH, is probably the most valuable tool I had access to in my time with CERA. The generosity of my colleagues was a revelation to me, and I will always cherish the relationships I have developed through CERA.

When I joined CERA, I thought I knew everything about giving hotline advice. My work at CERA taught me what I didn’t know. The wonderful people I met through CERA made me a better attorney, a better manager, and a better person.