A settlement conference is a meeting between opposing sides of a court case at which the parties attempt to reach a mutually agreeable resolution of their dispute without having to proceed to a hearing. Such a conference may be initiated through either party or it may be ordered by the court as a precedent (preliminary step) to holding a hearing.
As a CSS staff member, be aware of certain ethical considerations in this negotiation process. As a non‐lawyer, do not represent yourself as an attorney or give legal advice. Avoid telling a party what action they should take in their case because this can be construed as giving legal advice. Be cautious not to give legal advice when speaking both to CPs and NCPs. This can be difficult, because you are familiar with child support law. But you cannot share that knowledge in the form of advice to either side of the case.
Remember the attorney(s) in your office must comply with the RPC, ethical rules, and duties of attorneys. As a non‐lawyer working under the direct supervision of an attorney, your actions should be compatible with the ethical and professional obligations of the attorney. The attorney can be held responsible for the actions of the non‐lawyer under Rule 5.3 of the RPC. The non‐lawyer must not do anything the attorney is forbidden to do. Therefore staff members in CSS are bound by the RPC, just like lawyers.
If you are called upon to negotiate with an attorney, the balance of power is shifted heavily in favor of the attorney. The attorney may try to intimidate you with his or her knowledge, years of experience, etc. The best solution is to turn the negotiation over to an attorney in the office. If that is not possible, be cautious not to argue or quote any statute or case law to the attorney.
After a settlement conference, verify the case file is ready for the hearing. The file must be organized in such a manner that any attorney can conduct the hearing. When the State’s Attorney or Assistant District Attorney (ADA) presents the State’s case during the hearing, you are responsible for preparing the file for the attorney to use during the hearing. You may sit in the hearing as an assistant if the State’s Attorney or ADA has questions concerning the case file.
Preparing for the Settlement Conference
In preparing for the settlement conference, keep these recommendations in mind:
- Outline the issues for discussion. Make a list of the issues you need to address. Make notes of how you plan to handle the particular item and what information to gather.
- Identify your goals for the conference. Have a clear idea of the issues that need to be discussed and also what you want to accomplish during the conference. Think of the conference as an opportunity to obtain an agreed order.
- Organize the case file. Make sure information you identified in your outline is contained in the file and you can easily find it. Attach tabs to important documents (e.g., court orders, income information, affidavits of payments, etc.).
- Make sure any exhibits (e.g., arrears computations, child support guidelines calculations, etc.) are understandable to a layperson. Avoid labels on the exhibits which are cryptic or contain child support jargon. Consider developing a cover sheet providing explanations of legal documents or exhibits in simple terms.
Conducting the Meeting
Setting a Professional Tone and Building Positive Rapport.
Being able to make a connection with a customer helps to establish your credibility. You tend to listen to people whom you like or respect. Exhibit the characteristics you would want to see in someone else.
- Be genuine. A façade, when discovered by the customer, will destroy any credibility you have established.
- Show enthusiasm. If the customer believes you do not want to meet with them, they will also not want to meet with you.
- Be humble. If you appear arrogant to the customer, you are stating he/she is not intelligent. However, you do need to give the customer confidence that you have expertise in child support.
- Avoid preaching. Be careful to avoid giving the customer advice based upon your personal beliefs. Customers have a business relationship with CSS. It is inappropriate to base your interactions with customers on your opinion of their behavior.
- Refer to people by name instead of an acronym. Calling the noncustodial parent the “NCP” instead of Mr. Smith when speaking with another party on the case dehumanizes Mr. Smith.
When a customer is actually sitting in front of you, begin to establish a rapport with the customer, and create an open, comfortable atmosphere. Some helpful techniques (some of which are simply based on courtesy and common sense) are recommended.
- Be prompt
- Greet the customer pleasantly, and by name.
- Environment. Show the customer where to sit. Make sure the area is as private and environmentally comfortable as possible.
- Introductions. Introduce yourself, and provide a brief description of what your role (or value) will be to the customer in the CSS process.
- Define the length of the interview. Set goals and ground rules for the time frame allowed. This will help you get back on track if a customer begins to talk excessively or lose sight of the planned objectives for the interview.
In this phase of the interview, begin to gather the pertinent information necessary to take action on a child support case. At this point you may want to again explain the purpose of the interview and acknowledge the customer’s need for confidentiality. You must watch the customer carefully and respond accordingly. For example, you should be aware that if a customer is exhibiting certain behaviors, it may be an indication he/she is not answering some questions truthfully.
If this is the case, verify the answers being provided and use confrontation only sparingly and productively. Some behaviors indicating the customer is either being untruthful, or may not understand the questions are:
- Unfocused answers;
- Talking around the issue rather than addressing it directly; and
- Maintaining minimal eye contact.
Useful techniques in gathering accurate facts are:
- Be courteous. Use a natural, friendly tone of voice. This not only helps put a customer at ease, but when a very serious subject is broached, the more serious tone will provide emphasis.
- Use clear, simple language. Avoid using technical jargon or acronyms that may confuse the customer or lead to misinterpretation. For example, the customer may say he/she has never been a TANF recipient when, in fact, he/she has been, simply because this is an unfamiliar term to persons outside the OKDHS arena.
- Project empathy (not sympathy) for the customer. This means you express an understanding of the situation or of the customer’s feelings, but do not offer judgment or sympathy. For example, a female customer states her ex‐husband left her with three children and she hates him and wants to make sure he “pays” for what he has put her through. You might respond you understand how difficult it must be raising a family without support, and explain what actions OCSS can take to assist her. You must never lose sight of your duty to be impartial. Under no circumstances should you agree the former spouse is a “deadbeat,” etc.
- Discuss mutual responsibilities. Explain what OCSS as an agency can do for the customer, what your responsibilities are, and what responsibilities the customer will have to fulfill in order to allow the system to function at its peak for him/her.
- Begin practicing positive interviewing skills, inclusive body language, direct eye contact, and other non‐verbal communication skills to project the image of sensitivity, empathy, and confidence.
- Control the interview. Whenever a customer strays from the interview plan, acknowledge what they have said; but when there is a break in the flow, ask a child support question to get things back on track.
Use open and closed questions to manage the flow of the interview.
- Open questions are questions phrased so they cannot be answered with “yes” or “no.” These questions lend themselves to more thorough answers. For example, “What can you tell me about the noncustodial parent’s employment history?” is likely to yield far more information than the more commonly asked question ‐‐ “Does the NCP have a job?” Begin open‐ended questions with words such as:
- Closed questions, such as the “Does the noncustodial parent work” example given, generally illicit “yes” or “no” answers, or very specific answers such as names or dates. These are good tools to use when a customer is providing rambling, indirect answers and you need to keep things on track. Begin closed questions with words such as:
- How much
- How many
- Be honest. If the customer asks about something that cannot be done, say so. If a mistake has been made, admit it, apologize for it, and immediately explain what is being done to correct the error. Do not waste time trying to make excuses for the mistake.
Use “active listening” skills, which include:
- Parroting: Repeating information back to the customer to verify you understand what has been said. Paraphrasing is useful, as this relieves the pressure of remembering word for word what has been said. Additionally, very often the customer will hear what he/she has said stated another way, and realize he/she has not said what was meant.
- Reflective phrasing: When you want the customer to elaborate on a point, pursue the thought by using a reflective phrase, such as “you said …,” “you mentioned before that…,” or “you described….” After repeating the statement, follow through with an open‐ended question.
- Listening Responses: Use occasional listening responses such as “yes,” “right” or “uh‐huh.” This lets the customer know you are following the conversation, and compels him/her to continue speaking. However, be careful not to overuse this particular tactic. There is a point where these become meaningless comments, and may give the impression you are not listening.
- Non‐verbal cues: Maintain direct eye contact as often as possible. This assures the customer you are interested and paying attention. Using encouraging cues such as nodding or saying “I see,” will have the same effect. Using an open body stance and leaning toward the customer are also good non‐verbal cues telling the customer they have your undivided attention and you care about their problem. There are also non‐verbal cues which should be avoided. If you sit back in your chair with arms folded across the chest, you are sending a non‐verbal message that you are closed off to communication, and are hostile or judgmental toward the customer. Additionally, constantly checking the clock or watch, drumming fingers on the desk or rapidly tapping a pen or pencil are all signals you are impatient, and that the customer is using up valuable time best spent on something else.
- React to ideas: You must get in the habit of separating irritating ideas or behavior from the person stating or performing the idea or behavior. React to the message being said, not the person saying it.
REMEMBER: A customer interview is never an intrusion on the job; it is the reason for it.
Once essential information has been gathered, shift into the final phase of the interview process.