“I have been unsuccessful with my report writing, and I want to do things differently, going forward. What do you recommend?” Dave articulated these words to Karen, the coach, who was working with him on his professional development. Karen reassured him, “You are not alone with your challenges with court reports, and recognizing the need to improve is already a big step.”
In a previous article, I outlined the 5 factors that caused Dave to lose his credibility. In this current article, I am going to share with you the secrets given to Dave to reclaim his credibility.
Below are the ten answers you need to have before writing your next court report:
1. What is the issue?
Knowing the issue allows you to keep the end-game in mind, which is necessary in order to be specific, concise, and to make the strongest case possible. In the case of Alejandro and Alex, discussed in one of our previous articles, the issue was determining the best arrangement for visitation for Alex with Alejandro, because of Alejandro’s unpredictable schedule. However, Dave made the issue about “Alejandro being an unfit father.” Failure to focus on the issue prevented Dave from being specific and answering the question at hand, and brought his credibility into question.
2. What are the relevant facts?
In Dave’s case, the facts were several, including challenges with Alejandro’s schedule, in particular, the disruptions to Alex’s routine caused by Alejandro’s unpredictable schedule, and the impact on Alex’s education and extracurricular activities. These relevant facts would have allowed Dave to show objectivity, remain specific, and have enough data to support his impression and recommendation. Before writing your next report, be sure to first ask yourself and seek out the answers to, “what are the relevant facts.”
3. What are the relevant legal standards?
The legal standard in a custody agreement is defined as, “the best interests of the child.” Had Dave known or taken this into consideration, he would not have fallen into the trap of overemphasizing Alejandro’s decision to allow Alex to drink coffee, while minimizing Carmen’s invitation to her friends to drink and smoke cocaine, while Alex was in his room, alone, watching TV. We all have our biases, but when writing for the court, we need to do our best to be as objective as possible, despite our partiality. You can achieve this by, first, clearly understanding the relevant legal standards for the case, before you start working on your report.
4. What does my client want?
Countless times, we are convinced we know what is best for our clients, which is either based on our own viewpoint or lens, society’s expectations or demands, or on third party influences. This often leads to recommendations that are not tailored, often non-specific, or non-practical. This also is likely to contribute to your client’s failure and the related ramifications can be multidimensional. Because Dave had not even considered the legal standards of the best interests of the child, he did not even know he had to find out what his client, Alex wanted. His recommendation was therefore “out of touch” and, as you saw in the previous article, it also caused damage to his credibility.
5. What have been the contributing factors?
You are clear on the issue and the relevant facts; and you know the relevant legal standards and what your client wants. It is now time to zero in on the question: what have been the contributing factors. The answer to this requires critical thinking and problem solving skills, and the ability to conduct a root cause analysis. A root cause analysis often entails asking “why,” repeatedly; “why,” followed by “why,” once again, and then “why,” which you may have to ask over and over until you get to the root of the issue—the contributing factors. Knowing the contributing factors will allow you to remain explicit, objective and precise. It will also allow you to design recommendations that are tailored and practical, and it will help you further clarify the issue. In Alex’s case, Alejandro and Carmen were separated because Carmen’s parents did not like Alejandro and had promised to “make his life impossible,” including taking Alex away from him. All this became known after the judge had decided to reopen the case. Dave had no knowledge of any of this, and he was not even concerned or showing any signs of wonder regarding the contributing factors, which would have prompted a root cause analysis. A root cause analysis may not be natural to consider to some, but it is a skill you can learn.
6. What are the aggravating and mitigating factors?
Knowing what the relevant and contributing factors are will help you delineate the aggravating and the mitigating factors. This in turn will help you craft a mitigation plan, which will contribute to a well rounded set of recommendations. Knowing the aggravating and mitigating factors will help you remain objective and focused and will also guide you through the process with the end-game in mind. As you can see, because Dave did not know what the contributing factors were, he stopped short of finding out about any types of aggravating or mitigating factors, and, as such, he did not develop an appropriate mitigation plan. His recommendations were, therefore, lacking, and his impression was unsupported. Aggravating and mitigating factors, along with a mitigation plan will help you recognize the level of risk, while taking the relevant attenuating measures into consideration.
7. What is required for my client’s success?
The answers to the prior 6 questions are essential to accurately answer the question “what is required for my client’s success.” If, for example, you are unclear on what the contributing factors are or what the mitigation plan should be, you will have difficulty objectively designing what is really required for your client’s success. On the other hand, knowing what is required for your clients’ success will allow you to advocate for them in the most effective and efficient way possible. Dave failed to answer the above 6 questions. Therefore, he also failed to have the answer to the question, “what is required for Alex’s success?” This is a mistake you now can avoid.
8. How do I make the strongest possible case?
The answers to the above, previous seven questions are key to completing the content of your report. The next three questions, including this one, will help enhance your report and add to its credibility. “How do I make the strongest passible case,” is the first of the three questions you need to answer. You will need to make sure that you monitor your tone, outline the facts and minimize your own emotions, as much as possible. This does not mean you are to stay away from telling your client’s story in the most appealing way possible. It simply means that while doing so, you remain the least emotional possible, and you make sure to “show but not tell.” Dave attempted to make the strongest case possible but without first obtaining the answers to the above seven questions. Therefore, he made his case without providing support. For example, since he did not outline the facts, there was a paradoxical effect on his report, weakening it and diminishing his credibility.
9. How do I maintain objectivity despite my own biases?
As stated above, we all have our biases, but, more importantly, it is essential that we maintain our objectivity despite them. The answer to this dilemma starts with asking: “How do I maintain objectivity despite my own biases?” And the answer to this question starts with making sure that you have adequately answered the eight preceding questions. Further, as you collect adequate information in the process of answering these questions, you will find yourself confronting your biases with facts that may challenge them, and you may start seeing things differently. Remember, “Information is in the difference.” Dave confessed to Karen that he had never before asked this question. He added that, had he stopped and asked, he might have seen things differently. We can all pay attention to our personal bias.
10. If I played the other party, would there be “holes” in my report?
Once you have reached this point and have thoroughly answered questions 1-9, you will feel comfortable asking “If I were the other party, or whoever else reading this opinion and this report, what would I be asking; what else would I want to know; and would there be “holes” in this report.” In other words, be ready to play the devil’s advocate and hold yourself to the highest standards possible. You will do this, because you are working on making the best case for your client, while striving to maintain your objectivity and your credibility. You will do this, because you know that in order for your report to be taken into consideration, it needs to come across as the most rigorous and as balanced as possible.
I have been unsuccessful with my report writing, and I want to do things differently, going forward. What do you recommend?” Karen successfully worked with Dave, who then learned the 10 answers he needed to write a successful court report.
He also learned the general principles, the techniques, and the do’s and don’ts of effective writing skills for the court. Dave has been able to slowly incorporate Karen’s guidelines into his work, and he has been gaining back his credibility.
Writing for court is not taught in school and is a challenging skill to learn at the workplace. However, there is always hope and help available. Similar to Dave, you can learn the skills you need to be the best advocate you can be and with the highest level of credibility possible. I hope you will find further guidance that will enable you to make use of the skills outlined above.
Meanwhile, kindly share your experience, let me know how these articles have helped you, and please share this information with others. I look forward to our next conversation. Until then.
Your friend and colleague,
For more in this series of articles, check below!
Carson, D. (1983) Developing Courtroom skills. Journal of Social Welfare Law, 12, 29-38.
Eastman, N.L.G. (1987) Clinical confidentiality: A contractual basis. In G. Gudjonsson, and J. Drinkwater (eds) Psychological Evidence in Court. Issues in Criminological and Legal Psychology, No. 11. Leicester. The British Psychological Society, pp. 49-57.
Grisso, Thomas, "Guidance for Improving Forensic Reports: A Review of Common Errors" (2010). Psychiatry Publications and Presentations. 282.
Dr. Sidor is quadruple board certified in psychiatry, with board certification in General adult, Child and adolescent, Addiction, and Forensic, psychiatry. He also has additional training in public psychiatry, in several treatment modalities, in addition to his teaching, supervision, mentorship, coaching, and management, experience. Some of his passions are public speaking, leadership, entrepreneurship, and research, in addition to program development and project management. His overall goal is to empower all health care professionals throughout the United States and globally, towards ensuring the continuity of excellent patient care, while balancing the need to take care of themselves. Dr. Sidor is the main instructor for the SWEET Institute, and he is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University. He is also the past-Medical Director for CASES (Center for Alternative Sentencing and employment Services), and he speaks and writes fluently in six (4) languages—French, English, Spanish, Creole, and has intermediate proficiency in Portuguese and Italian.