Month: May 2018

Client developmentClient relationshipsEmotional intelligenceInnovationLaw firm management

Unicorn lawyers

What is a “unicorn skill”? It’s a skill that reasonably performing professionals in the field do not have, which is why they are just…reasonable. They can still do their job but are not “A” players. A unicorn skill is thus rarely found, and those who have it stand out as…unicorns.

I learned about the term “unicorn skill” from this article (quoting John Maeda’s Design in Tech report) claiming that for software designers, the unicorn skill is not coding (as traditionally thought) but good writing. Coders who are also great writers are unicorns:

A core skill of the interaction designer is imagining users (characters), motivations, actions, reactions, obstacles, successes, and a complete set of ‘what if’ scenarios. … These are the skills of a writer — all kinds of writers, but particularly fiction, screenwriting, and technical writing.

(This segment of the article is quoted from blogger Susan Stuart.)

The unicorn idea connects to a larger meme within the design community about unicorn designers, who—according to http://www.uxunicorn.com —can be described as follows:

Mythical user experience designer with an advanced and adaptive skill range. Outstanding skills in graphic design, rapid prototyping, front end development, user testing, technical specifications, marketing and branding. It does not have an opinion, it has a process, and will harmonize with any environment.

Unicorn designers are basically “supernatural beings” that may or may not exist, but that hiring managers want. They combine the best of technical skills with the best of soft skills:

It’s important to be able to receive and give feedback and have the necessary soft skills to work efficiently with others. Fortunately, with the understanding and expertise of different skill sets, unicorns should be able to develop deep empathy for the people they are working with.

Obviously there is some skepticism here about whether such a designer exists, or could exist.

Unicorn lawyers?

If that’s a unicorn designer, then what’s a unicorn lawyer? It’s not that far off from the combination of advanced technical plus soft skills described above for designers and coders. Here’s a draft description, inspired by the above and tailored to the legal profession:

Mythical recent law grad with an advanced and adaptive legal skill set. Outstanding skills in client interviewing, case analysis, legal research and analysis, mediation, litigation, transaction, regulatory compliance, social justice, efficiency, people skills, client development, and pro bono. They do not have an opinion, they have a complete skill set, and will enhance the justice production and economic advantage of any firm or agency. They are also qualified to be a solo unicorn needing no further mentoring.

Skepticism about unicorns in design work reminded me of the skepticism within legal education: can a law school can really be expected to produce a practice-ready graduate immediately adaptable to literally any legal environment? Those who aspire to produce or to be unicorns embrace a perhaps radical faith in and dedication to their own professional development.

Assuming for the moment that producing / being a unicorn lawyer is a worthy quest, can we identify one single unicorn skill—a skill that is under-appreciated, not commonly found, and highly correlated with outstanding performance in the field?

After reading the claim that writing is the unicorn skill for designers, I posited on Twitter that legal writing might be the unicorn skill for lawyers:

That idea was instantaneously shot down, with multiple sources confirming that legal writing is necessary but not sufficient—at least not in law firms that need client business. Any skill that is expected as a baseline cannot be a unicorn skill. The skill identified as more unusual and more likely to be rewarded was rainmaking. And rainmaking can, of course, be defined in various degrees of formality:

Listening as the unicorn skill for lawyers?

Listening is not unrelated to client development and even “a**kissing.” So can we say effective listening might be a unicorn skill because it is not commonly practiced at the level of excellence and is highly correlated with overall excellence?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that in almost any lawyering that involves interpersonal interactions, listening should be practiced to at least an average level of competence. Lawyers have to listen to their clients to take the facts, and listen to their supervisors to take assignments, and listen to witnesses to take depositions and conduct witness examinations at trial.

But is listening commonly practiced at the level of excellence? That means picking up the wealth of verbal and nonverbal cues that intense listening can reveal. It means making people truly feel heard. It means hearing and processing what is not being said. It means recognizing the moment of opportunity to interrupt and show engagement, versus the moment to sit back in silence and let the speaker continue unabated. The judgment and skilled intuition needed for this type of listening is why it goes into good lawyering in a technical sense and good rainmaking in the social sense of being liked and trusted. Finding all these skills in one person (plus necessary but not sufficient skills like legal writing) makes for a great lawyer.

And—according to the hypothesis of listening as unicorn skill—you don’t see top lawyers who are not also really strong at listening. You might call it charisma, but listening is part of what these extra-effective professionals do so well, and that others don’t. They take in a lot of information efficiently in their conversations and remember it. When they repeat questions, it’s not because they missed something, but to see if the speaker answers differently or to refocus on a crucial area. They may follow up in writing with precision to pin down the recipients and preserve their “record” for later.

Even in settings not traditionally understood as emotionally charged, they help others feel heard, efficiently, because they subtly manage the conversation. That’s part of what makes for great rainmaking. They may gravitate toward and be promoted in jobs that reward personal networks and interpersonal skills, e.g. negotiation and business development. After interacting with a skilled listener, people may not identify listening as the exact reason they are impressed, but they walk away with a sense of confidence and trust, and a positive impression. Those without the same skills in listening are fine, average, reasonable, even very good—but not unicorns.

Although I’ve made the case for listening as a unicorn skill, I am genuinely interested in others’ opinions of what the unicorn skill for lawyers may be.

For example, Lucy Endel Bassli has gone in a completely different direction, arguing that a unicorn lawyer is someone who “likes process and seeks data.”

When we look across the profession, what skill is under-appreciated, not commonly performed at a high level, and signifying truly excellent performance in the field? Have you ever interacted with someone you consider to be a “unicorn lawyer”? If so, what led you to that conclusion?

Legal communicationSummer associates

Resources for summer associates

Many summer associates are starting jobs this week. This post may be my shortest ever, but here are some resources for effective communication, especially listening, in the summer-associate setting:

https://listenlikealawyer.com/category/summer-associates/

Here is a post by Georgia State Professor Kendall Kerew on listening for law-school externs, with many lessons for summer associates as well:

https://listenlikealawyer.com/2014/01/08/listen-to-learn-four-ways-listening-can-help-you-get-the-most-out-of-your-externship/

And here is a checklist for taking a new assignment:

https://listenlikealawyer.com/checklists-2/listening-checklist-for-taking-a-new-assignment/

Good luck to all the summer associates of 2018!

Emotional intelligenceEmotional laborLeadershipMentoringmindfulness

Listening to Combat Loneliness    

According to this study in the Harvard Business Review, lawyers are #1 when it comes to being lonely at work:

In a breakdown of loneliness and social support rates by profession, legal practice was the loneliest kind of work, followed by engineering and science.

(Hat tip to Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind and online lawyer community Lawyer Smack. He wrote more about lawyer loneliness here.)

The legal industry may be particularly prone to loneliness because of the “game face” mentality necessary to represent clients effectively. Putting on a game face on for work can be a professional necessity, but also causes loneliness if it spreads to other facets of life.

People who are lonely often think that everyone else is doing OK while they are not. They think they are the only ones carrying a burden. I have had clients talk about putting their “game face” on rather than sharing truthfully about themselves.

This quote is from British psychotherapist Philippa Perry, board member of a social business called Talk for Health which aims to create a network of long-term peer support systems for meaningful sharing and listening.

Many lawyers and legal professionals and law students already have long-term peer groups in their colleagues and classmates. But if people are gathering on a regular basis with their game faces firmly in place, those peer groups may not be serving a support function at all. Is there anything lonelier than giving a performance that everything is wonderful and there is “nothing to see here”?

Peer groups that provide real support are one of the most valuable ways to combat loneliness. To delve more into the elements of real support, I went to the books—specifically the listening textbook authored by Professors Worthington and Fitch-Hauser of Auburn, Listening: Processes, Functions, and Competency. (I met and talked with them a few years ago and would do so again anytime because they are awesome.) They lay out some helpful categories of listening for social support:

Directive v. non-directive

Directive support provides “unrequested specific types of coping behaviors or solutions for the recipient.”

Non-directive support “shifts the focus of control from the giver to the receiver” and lets the receiver “dictate the support provisions.

Problem-focused v. emotion-focused

Problem-focused support seeks to help the speaker solve a problem.

Emotion-focused support seeks to help the speaker work through their own emotions

To provide effective social support, different strategies are called for at different times and in different contexts. Coworkers who do not know each other all that well are not just going to go out for coffee and start providing open-ended, non-directive emotional support. I recently went to a women’s bar event and heard a white woman explain that she really wanted to “be there” for her minority colleagues, but they didn’t seem willing to open up and share. Someone tactfully pointed out that you can be a good colleague just by being kind and reliable over time. Small talk is not meaningless; by being really interested in someone in a socially appropriate way, maybe a deeper relationship will develop. But no one is entitled to hear another person’s story at work.

Junior lawyers and new law students may seek and crave mentors who give them directive emotional support; I recently overheard a third-year law student lecturing—in a supportive but dominant voice—a first-year student. The 3L forcefully instructed the 1L to stop being distracted by a romantic relationship and focus on school, and everything would fall into place as long as the 1L put priorities where they belonged and made a point of taking this time to do what needed to be done, etc. etc.

This kind of directive advice can feel exactly right for a person who is lonely, unsure of their own path forward and how to be effective, or both. But over time, directive support may become more about the person offering it. Directive support can foster a dependent relationship that just leaves the recipient in an even lonelier place when the “director” is not around. A thoughtful mentor should reflect on their own strategies for providing support. Someone who naturally tends toward directive support should consider mixing it up with non-directive approaches. This means asking more questions, prompting the mentee to reflect and assess what is needed. Ultimately, non-directive listening may help a professional grow and take responsibility for their development.

Assisting someone who appears to be lonely is an advanced communication challenge. Jeena Cho has written about the difficulty lawyers may feel in breaking the cycle of loneliness:

When we feel loneliness, it’s easy to continue on the path to more loneliness rather than to do something about it. It makes sense that lawyers would avoid taking steps to break the loneliness because it would require vulnerability.

Others around a lonely person may be able to sense it and help them break the cycle. Worthington and Fitch-Hauser give an example in their book of the following—something that lawyers and legal professionals may recognize from their own conversations at work:

Person 1: Hey, how are you?

Person 2: Oh hello, I’m fine. How about you?

Person 1: Hmm, you don’t sound like you’re fine. What’s going on?

Person 2: Oh nothing. Really, I’m fine.

They acknowledge that in this scenario, 1 may accept 2’s statement at face value and leave the conversation. But to  really go in for the social support, 1 might push for more with something like “Are you sure? Did something happen at work that upset you? If you’d like to talk about it, I’m here to listen.” They acknowledge this is a heavy-handed response and suggest another, less intrusive way to handle the conversation as well: 1 may choose to sit down next to 2 and ask 2 a bit more specifically how work is going. As Worthington and Fitch-Hauser point out, even the heavy-handed approach can be helpful. It’s uncomfortable and possibly annoying, but it provides the potentially lonely person with the opportunity to respond.

Both of these possible approaches also avoid the “negative social support behaviors.” In terms of what not to do, Worthington and Fitch-Hauser list the following:

  • Giving advice
  • Using platitudes or clichés
  • Saying “I know exactly what you’re going through”
  • Telling people to stop crying or stop being wrong or embarrassing
  • Saying it’s not such a big deal and minimizing the situation
  • Blaming the person seeking support

Other than unsolicited and unwanted advice, these should be pretty easy to avoid. It’s much harder to provide truly effective social support. Really good social support tends to be “invisible”: “The recipient isn’t consciously aware that support is being given and, therefore, doesn’t feel any negative consequences of being the recipient.”

I think this observation crystallizes the true art form of helping a colleague break through their loneliness. If they become aware that (1) you think they’re lonely and (2) you are trying to help, your chance of effectively helping them drops precipitously.  Stealthy, invisible support using discerning, empathetic listening can encourage someone to begin addressing their loneliness by doing what Jeena talks about in her article: taking a tiny step.