Category: Professional development

Law practiceLaw schoolNonverbal communicationProfessional developmentProfessional identity

The Wisdom of Judge Smith

Try to listen twice as much as you speak, because when you are new you don’t have a clue. Listen to what people say and notice what they don’t say. Often their body language will verify or betray their words. Ask questions to clarify, distinguish, expose and summarize.

Judge J. Layne Smith of Leon County, Florida, wrote this open letter addressed to a “New Law School Graduate” in the June 2 Tallahassee Democrat. It’s good advice that takes about five minutes to read and a lifetime to implement. (On that note, cf. John Barlow, The 25 Principles for Adult Behavior.)

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?

Law schoolLegal communicationLegal educationLegal skillsLegal writing

A digression: re-learning to swim

While attempting—as an adult—to learn how to swim properly, the experience gave me a whole new appreciation for what 1L legal writing students go through. The idea of adults trying new things in middle age is a whole genre, found in a variety of essays and books, e.g. What I learned as the worst student in the class and Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age. Law students may or may not start law school in their 40s, but they do bring beliefs, methods, and habits that may or may not help them adjust to legal writing. On this, my final class of the year teaching 1L legal writing, here are some thoughts.

swimmers-swimming-race-competition-56837.jpeg

What you already know—or think you know—can block your learning.

I already “knew” how to swim. As a child, I took just enough swimming lessons to say I could swim. The P.E. teacher stood in the pool and led us in a lot of bobbing up and down, some survival sidestroke, and a little freestyle. Swimming was not an embedded part of my hometown’s culture, though. The local country club closed down and was bowled over to make a Super Wal-Mart. My exposure to swimming over the next 30 years consisted of watching the Olympics. As a result, I had some mistaken ideas.

Take breathing, for example. It seemed like a good idea take stop kicking and just kind of coast while breathing to the side. Swimming is supposed to seem effortless, is it not? This idea was really, really wrong. I also thought I should breathe on alternating sides—a belief that is not wrong, but also not necessary for a beginner. Other issues were far more important to address, such as body rotation and not putting my palm out like a stop sign.

Mistaken and distorted beliefs afflict beginning legal writers as well. Everyone in law school has some kind of writing background, even if it’s been years in between. Memories of long-past writing lessons may bubble to the surface. Some of these memories are good. Yes, a paragraph should have a topic sentence indicating what it’s about, followed by details. That was true in fourth grade and still valuable now.

But some of the writing memories are bad, at least for legal writing. Law students often come at legal writing brandishing a thesaurus because they don’t want to sound repetitive and, they fear, simplistic. In fact as experienced legal writers know, “elegant variation” (a term coined by Richard Wydick) may introduces ambiguity, which most of the time in legal writing is very, very bad. New legal writers should put the thesaurus away and focus more on reading legal language with a legal dictionary at their side. Experienced legal writers can certainly use the thesaurus; they know which words can be varied and which cannot. But that’s the wrong thing to emphasize at the beginning, just as alternate breathing is a skill to save for later in one’s swimming process.

Skills are like muscles.

What you do becomes who you are. Based on years of running, my legs were pretty strong even if orthopedically challenged. But swimming quickly revealed an upper-body deficit. My arms were accomplishing almost nothing. In fact, using arms actually slowed me down at first, as compared to kicking alone.

Similarly in taking on legal writing, students’ past experiences will have contributed to their strengths and weaknesses coming into the course. Those who have been writing lengthy liberal arts papers are more likely to be comfortable bringing in sources, generating content, and highlighting ambiguities. Those who have been working in business may be very comfortable with summaries up front and concise recommendations.

These strengths of each disciplinary background come with weaknesses as well. Spotting ambiguities is necessary but not sufficient to create valuable, reliable legal advice. Concise summaries and recommendations may not go far enough to help a lawyer or client understand the relevant legal context and possibilities.

Learning a new variation of a skill doesn’t mean ignoring what has worked in the past, but it does mean being willing to reflect and modify. Professor Teri McMurtry-Chubb has written a handbook for translating various disciplinary backgrounds into strong legal writing in Legal Writing in the Disciplines: A Guide to Legal Writing Mastery.

It’s harder when people are watching.

Not knowing how to do something can feel very embarrassing. Swimming around other actual swimmers was a psychological obstacle. I would leave the pool rather than share a lane. I saw other people—kids and adults—working with swim coaches. Part of me wanted to get some advice too, but I felt really embarrassed.

When I finally let a swimming coach see me swim, her advice made a world of difference. She quickly diagnosed and suggested specific, effective corrections for the mistakes I was making.

Similarly in beginning legal writing, it can be excruciating for some students to share their work, or any of their thoughts. Raising a hand is the last thing many students would do. Even turning in early assignments just to the professor can be stressful. Just the thought of letting someone reading a piece of writing can interfere with the writing process.

But most of the time, almost everyone in the room is dealing with the same questions and issues in their work. Sharing one’s work is a huge step towards getting a genuine assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. No matter how bad the first attempt, it won’t be the worst piece of legal writing an experienced professor has ever seen. And it probably has some predictable patterns that can be recognized and re-shaped to create much more effective work.

Working with a coach is great, but the coach can’t do it for you.

The coach spent 45 minutes with me and vastly improved the efficiency of what I was doing in the water. She showed me what I needed to be doing with my arms and legs and breathing, correcting my misconceptions. She also let me know about some of the conventions of swimming that didn’t seem important to me but in fact are important to real swimmers. For example, you always touch the wall. Stopping a few inches short because “whatever, it’s just a few inches,” is not what real swimmers do.

As the lesson went on, my brain started to overload and my body started to tire. I got frustrated and may have dropped a particular profane word. The coach could have given me more advice, but I couldn’t learn. She ended with a gentle admonition: “You just need to swim. Are you going to come out here and practice?”

Students must have a similar experience when meeting with their legal writing professors. Skillful feedback can help a new legal writer cut through a lot of ineffective habits. The professor can help the student understand that some practices—such as sticking with the same legally significant term instead of resorting to the thesaurus—need to be accepted for the student to become a real legal writer.

But there’s only so many writing points that a writing conference can cover. At some point, the student (understandably) has maxed out on taking advice. And then the student has to leave the conference, go out, and just write.

Sometimes you need a break. Sometimes you should keep going.

Swimming is really, really tiring. And people who are tired make mistakes. With swimming, at best this means slowing down. It can also mean a noseful of water and coughing fit in the middle of the lap lane. At such moments, the best thing seems to be just to calm down and reset for another try.

And so it is with learning legal writing. Sometimes the writing muscles just get tired. Just sitting at a computer does not lead to writing. As John Wooden once said, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” The writing activity in marathon writing sessions may be particularly vulnerable to mistakes. And the problem there is not just sloppy or confusing writing but substantive mistakes that could affect legal advice to a client.

But that does not mean quitting at the first sign of fatigue. It doesn’t mean all mistakes signal break time. Any athlete must push the boundaries of fatigue to improve. As an adult-learner in the swimming world, my workouts are pathetic by lifelong swimmer standards. But challenging myself to do an extra lap or another short set will be what moves me forward.

Similarly with writing, pushing through the frustration is often crucial to making actual progress.

Accomplishment comes in tiny moments at first.

Breakthroughs can be subtle. At some point I started stretching out in front of me and “pulling” more water. (See how I used the word “pulling”? I am pretty sure that’s a real swimming word!) I was able to rotate in the water instead of swimming like a floating ironing board. Progress was slow, but the time in the pool made a lot of difference, and I knew I was getting better.

Similarly for new legal writers, real progress can be halting at first: Read a case and highlighting an important quote. Make an outline and look at how it has a point A without a point B (yikes!). Write a sentence and realizing that it is too specific to start a new paragraph; it’s a detail, not an idea about the law. Nobody else will be there to see these brief flashes, but they are so important.  The progress is subtle and private—but real.

The lesson and the learning are never really “finished.”

I’d like to say I’m a great or even just a strong swimmer now. That’s just not the case. But I’m a lot better. I wear a one-piece, cap, and goggles, and take a lane. I will continue to consult coaches from time to time and work on my own.

Learning legal writing is much the same. At the end of a year in legal writing, the transition is underway but incomplete. There is much to learn from the experts and from continued effort and experimentation. My hope for the students is that they know what to do to get better. My hope is that they feel the satisfaction of gaining a new skill.

Photo Credit: WordPress Photo Library

Client developmentClient relationshipsLeadershipProfessional development

Executive Coaching for Lawyers as Leaders

Listen Like a Lawyer is pleased to share this Q&A with executive coach Greg Riggs. Greg is the former general counsel of a Fortune 100 company and he has also serve as Associate Dean at Emory Law School. Greg has devoted his career to professional development and now has a national practice as an executive coach with Novateur Partners LLC.

GLR Emory 2012 (2)Q:   My first question is very basic: What is executive coaching?

A:    That is a good question, and the answer is not obvious. There are many different types of coaches to help us with various aspects of our lives. We have all heard of athletic coaches, fitness coaches, wellness coaches, life coaches, and so on. Executive coaches work principally with professionals or leaders in organizations who want to do better at their jobs. They want to be more effective managers, team members, and performers. That is the scope of my approach to executive coaching.

Q:  What types of clients do you work with, typically?

A:  My practice tends to focus on senior and mid-level executives in the fields of business, law, and higher education. I have wanted to leverage the experience I gained from 35+ years in the legal, corporate and university environments and from serving as General Counsel in the C-suite of a Fortune 100 company. My clients have tended to be general counsels, law firm managing partners and other firm leaders, vice-presidents and above in large organizations, and university officials, including deans. I also coach high-potential individuals who are on their way to those positions.

Q:  The academic, legal, and business sectors all have different cultures and different ways of being effective. How do you work with people in those different sectors?

A: You’re so right that the cultures can vary dramatically in these different sorts of environments. But they all have one thing in common. That is, organizations in all of these areas need effective leaders to be successful.

Very often in the legal arena, people find themselves named to  leadership positions without really having had any training for the job. In law firms, for example, people who are terrific lawyers—high performers and high earners—are often the ones chosen for management positions. But they may have had no significant management experience whatsoever.

In the general counsel arena, people who have been really good in-house attorneys or outside attorneys find themselves in leadership positions and have to develop management skills on the fly. It’s the same with doctors in the hospital environment. Academic deans are another example. Deans who have been great academics, terrific writers, teachers, brilliant in what they do suddenly become CEO of a major, intricate, highly demanding organization. Executive coaches can be a very valuable resource for these academic leaders as they take on major challenges and handle dangers and traps they have never faced before.

Q:  There are an increasing number of classes and resources on law and leadership. But “law and leadership” is definitely not a common offering in the typical law-school curriculum. How would a lawyer or future lawyer get the information that they need for leadership when it’s not typically a part of their formal training?

A:  There are two sides to that question.

One of them is, where is the information? There are entire libraries and cottage industries built around teaching people how to be better leaders.

But then there is the application of that information. So it’s similar in a way to your own area of expertise, legal writing.  When we are in our 1L year in law school and we are trying to figure out how to gain our bearings in legal writing, we all take a course in legal writing and advocacy.  But I think I have heard you say that for many of us it is  a lifelong undertaking to be a really good legal writer.

It’s the same with leadership. We have to pay attention to what we are doing and apply principles that we learn that are meaningful to us. Then we have to  receive feedback and do it better next time. And next time might be this afternoon or tomorrow, because we are being called upon to exercise our leadership skills constantly when we have management positions.

Q:  What are some of the common themes that you seek get across with the professionals you coach?

A:  The number one headline is to develop an approach that allows you to leverage your own strengths and talents to find and bring your own personal best game.

We have all seen people who read books on leadership and then try to fabricate their approach to leadership using textbook methodology.  It rarely works very well because there is often a lack of authenticity. To be really effective we have to be ourselves—our best selves to be sure.

And the key there is to identify and then develop and bring out into the workplace those core skills, core talents, traits, and dispositions that we have inside of us in a way that is most effective in our interactions with other people.

Q:  Well, I can definitely understand how the idea of being authentic and being yourself is attractive. But what about a person you might work with who needed to work on a weakness—such as ineffective listening skills.  How would you go about working with someone on their listening?

A:  So listening is a vitally important skill, and very few of us do it very well. But let’s back up a little bit before we actually get to the act of listening, because when we talk about listening a preliminary question is: what are we listening for? What are we trying to capture in the listening enterprise, the listening moment?

One thing that I see fairly commonly for people who want to be more effective listeners is, they haven’t had a broader conversation with themselves along the lines of, what am I missing?  Sometimes people are perceived as not being good listeners when actually the issues they are grappling with are much broader. It is my observation that most don’t stop to ask ourselves, what are my blind spots? And, what do I need to get better at?

If I could come up with one word that applies to most of us, describing a skill that we need to be better at, it’s this: awareness. Being aware of how we are coming across to other people, for example. Many of us are not very good at discerning that.

Once we get a feel for how we come across in different settings, then we might ask, how are we affecting other people? How is our behavior being received by others? How is what we say landing on other people? We are often not very aware of that.

And we are also not aware of what’s happening in our minds.  We don’t notice what are we thinking about and what’s happening with our emotions. Without that awareness, we behave in ways that are often suboptimal.

So when we are listening to other people, there are various levels of listening. Often when we think we are listening it is at a superficial level with  a lot of distracting chatter going on in our minds. We are not really focusing; we are listening to ourselves in our minds more than we are listening to the other person.

Then there is a deeper level of listening, where we are really focused on paying total attention to what the individual is saying, not thinking so much about ourselves or our to-do list or how what the individuals is saying is affecting us.  We can call this “Level 2” listening.

And then there is a third level, a deeper intuitive listening where we are capturing—often without even being aware of it—the emotions of the other person, the way of thinking that the other person is displaying, the micro-expressions that we all have that reveal things about each other that we often fail to notice. If we can bring good listening skills to the workplace, to the dozens of conversations we have every day, we can capture much more information, use it much more effectively, and be more successful at what we do.

That’s a long answer to a good question.

Q: Someone who can get to that third level of listening is in a much better position to be professionally effective. But what if you have someone who is just not that good at listening? What can that person do to become more skillful?

A:  That is one thing that executive coaching is all about. I mean, if we could read a book on better listening, or on being a better conversationalist, on paying more attention, or focusing on the other person and then actually apply that knowledge in our daily interactions, that would be great. We have all read those types of books, but then do we apply the learning? Usually not, or at least not consistently.

How executive coaching is different than say seminars and courses and symposia is that it involves enabling feedback over an extended period of time. In my experience, it usually takes six to twelve months of leadership coaching for someone to notice consistent improvements in their effectiveness. Coaching engagements sometimes last longer than 12 months, but six months seems to be about the minimum length of time to heighten our awareness, learn to focus keenly on our interactions with others, and draw in the feedback we need to fine tune our approach. So that’s where coaching can really help.  We all need a partner, a thought partner, a mentor, a sounding board, a traveling partner as we explore better ways to be a leader. That’s what a coach does.

Q:  True, so that was actually one of my questions. I think a lot of people might want to be a better leader or a better communicator, but they may not have access to an executive coach. Can a person sort of “self-coach”? How can you get better on your own?

A:  It’s a great question. Let’s examine one example. Let’s say I want to be a better listener. People have told me I need to be a better listener. Okay, the next step is to make a decision: “I am going to be a better listener, and I am going to make a commitment to myself and maybe to others to do that.”

What’s the next step that we can do without seeking any help, without getting on anybody else’s calendar?  So we begin let’s say for the next week to make a commitment: “I’m going to experiment this week, and I am going to pay attention to listening and see what I can figure out, see what I can observe. I’m going to investigate this.”

So we begin the day with a pre-brief driving to work. “I’m going to be a better listener today, I commit to that. It may even involve putting a little note on the calendar before a meeting, before I go into a meeting I’m going to have a 60-second huddle with myself.  I’m going to try to listen better in this meeting.”

And then after the meeting have a debrief with onesself, because we need feedback to improve.  So the meeting lasts an hour, we come out of the meeting, and if we do not then think about that meeting, anything we may have learned or may learn from that meeting is gone forever, it’s just lost.

So part of the exercise then is giving ourselves feedback: “How well did I listen in that meeting? Where was my mind? I may have had a hundred thoughts that were extraneous to the meeting.  If I could recapture the flow of conversation that happened in that meeting, could I do it? Was I really paying attention?” And then as we expand our awareness, we can think, “Alright, what can I notice about what I said in response to other people?  How did I come across? What were the facial expressions of people around the table?” This type of exercise is about awareness and intentionality and feedback.

Q:  I hear you are breaking it down into distinct behaviors that you can think about and reflect on if those behaviors happen or not.

A:  Yes, so the beginning word is intentionality: “I intend, and I am really going to try to be a better listener this morning.” And then mid-day, renew or refresh that intention: “Listening is going to be my aim this afternoon.”

Q:  Have you found that people are too easy on themselves or too hard on themselves?  Because when you were talking about how you might debrief with yourself, I can imagine some people saying, “I was an incredible listener, I did everything right, it went so great.”  And then another group of people saying, “Oh it was terrible, I was a horrible listener all my efforts are of my efforts are you know for naught, and I’m never going to get better at this.”

How do you help people as a coach to have the accurate self-critique but also not be so tough on themselves?

Q: In my experience, most lawyers are very self-critical. That inner critic comes out and interprets and seizes interpretations of themselves usually in a negative way.  So there is a writer, Marilee Adams, who has done some great work in identifying that mode that we get in most of the time of being a judger: judging other people, judging ourselves, usually critically, often quite harshly.

That mode contrasts to being in a learner mode where we are curious instead of beating ourselves up. In learner mode, we want to be a learner and we’re curious in a non-judgmental way about what just happened: “What was I doing? What was I thinking? Where was my attention?” Then, for the next hour now, having been aware of what was happening to me in the last hour, I’m going to see if I can direct my attention in a more positive productive way.

Then it is uplifting, then it’s positive, then it doesn’t hurt, it actually feels good because learning feels good. Rarely do we put ourselves in learning mode. But we can, and it helps a lot.

Q: Before we close the Q&A, are there any other important topics we might talk about regarding executive coaching?

A: So the one message that I have with all of my clients, the one huge need that I see is the leadership arena, is taking time to pay attention to leadership. People that you and I work with, they work all the time—maybe 200  or even 300 hours a month or more. That’s a lot of time spent on their careers.

Most of the people that you and I work with are leaders or have leader or management responsibilities. But they usually spend sometimes close to zero minutes thinking about their leadership. They don’t spend any time thinking about how to be more effective, more influential and happier and more satisfied with what they do.

So to give priority, to pay a little bit of attention to leadership—just one percent or two percent of their time—can have a huge return on investment. We can all be better leaders and be happier in the process. That’s my message.

Q:  Sounds like a win-win.

A: It really is. Everybody wins.

 

 

 

Law practiceLegal communicationProfessional developmentProfessional identity

Welcome, #PracticeTuesday Blog

You may know this blog is a huge fan of the #PracticeTuesday hashtag. I covered it here and follow it every Tuesday at 5 p.m. Eastern on Twitter. The conversation ranges from reminders about handling witnesses . . .

. . . to managing constant distractions . . .

. . . to working with opposing counsel productively . . .

. . . to managing mistakes with integrity . . .

. . . to managing your career over time . . .

. . . and much more.

Co-founders Professor Rachel Gurvich of UNC and Sean Marotta of Hogan Lovells have now expanded the discussion to a blog at http://www.practicetuesday.com.

The mission of the Practice Tuesday blog is broad and consistent with that of the hashtag conversations: "sharing advice from law students, attorneys, professors, and judges for law students, attorneys, professors, and judges." The hashtag conversations thus far have been honest and enlightening, and Rachel and Sean promise the Tuesday Twitter conversations will continue. The blog will expand discussions that just can't fit into 140 characters, via weekly postings.

I know PracticeTuesday.com will address listening skills, and in fact is already doing so in one of the first posts, advice for law students during on-campus interviews:

Listen carefully to what you hear from each attorney and actively engage in the conversation on their terms.

Thanks for the shout-out and links to this blog. It seems we will have a lot in common, and I look forward to more conversation on Twitter and on the new blog.

You can follow the Practice Tuesday blog's updates at @PracticeTuesday on Twitter.

Emotional intelligenceMentoringPeople skillsProfessional developmentSmartphones

Summer-associate advice

When I speak to summer associates, I always tell them they have two jobs:

  1. do great work and gain as many opportunities as possible within the employer’s organization, should they end up working there; and
  2. study the employer, lawyers and staff, and the overall culture to discern if it’s a good fit for them.

Listening will help with both of these jobs.

As far as doing great work, summer associates should start using their listening skills before the job starts. Use social media to “listen” (in the sense of monitoring) to what the employer is saying to the public. What topics seem to be interesting? Who’s writing? What tone do the lawyers use in their publications and social-media content? What personality do they project?

Summer associates should also talk to mentors about how to do a good job as a summer associate generally, and (from mentors within the organization) how to do a good job in that particular setting. Ask good questions, listen, and follow up with more good questions. Listen actively and paraphrase the advice back to the mentor sharing it. Take notes later, reflecting on the advice and assimilating it even more thoroughly. Send thoughtful follow-up messages that demonstrate listening skills and reinforce the relationships being built.

Once the job starts, listening skills are crucial during any meeting to take down an assignment. Beyond the basics like expected format and deadline, the assigning meeting offers so much more for the careful listener: the supervisor’s own baseline of knowledge in the area of law, attitude toward the case, expected answer to the assignment, expected difficulty of the assignment, general areas of confidence, and general areas of perceived risk. All of this information can be highly valuable in completing an assignment at a level beyond basic law-student competence.

“Shadowing” work such as observing a deposition or negotiation may not be a true assignment, if there is no deliverable work product. But during a shadowing experience, it seems crucial to display the highest form of attentiveness. Even if an attorney working on the case displays distracted behavior such as checking email on a phone, the summer associate should not feel free to reciprocate that behavior. Buying into the myth of reciprocity—the senior lawyer checked her phone, so it was appropriate and for the summer associate to do so as well—seems like one way to make a bad impression. What’s more important to a summer associate than the valuable opportunity to observe right in front of them? Unless they have a family crisis or already on a deadline for another supervisor within the organization and can explain that to the people around them, it seems likely that nothing is more important. On a more positive note, careful listening and good follow-up questions can actively show a person’s potential as a future lawyer.

Another opportunity to listen happens during a debrief on any assignment. This is the opportunity to accept constructive criticism gracefully, i.e. non-defensively and in a manner that makes the supervisor comfortable working with that summer associate again in the future. Another lesson is that sometimes (oftentimes?) in the legal world, feedback isn’t really helpful or specific. Or it isn’t there at all. Seeking out feedback and asking good questions show a dedication to professional development and professionalism generally.

Strong listening skills during the interview are likely part of the reason a summer associate got the job in the first place. Listening skills on the job are just as crucial, and actually even more so.

Here’s another post hitting some of these same themes and delving into more detail on listening for summer associates: https://listenlikealawyer.com/2016/06/01/listening-for-summer-associates/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Client developmentClient relationshipsCollaborationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm management

Listening to punctuation

Thanks to Julie Schrager, counsel and legal writing coach at Schiff Hardin, for this guest post. 

schrager_julie_s_bw_bio_wide-1

I have been desperately trying to find a way to write about exclamation points. I grew up in a time when they were reserved for exclamations:

“Congratulations on winning that game!”

or

“That’s the reason he got that promotion!”

Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, calls those uses the “Yes!”  and “Ah!” meanings of exclamation points.

And I was taught—starting in high school, then in college, law school, and in my first 20+ years of legal practice—that exclamation points had no role in business communications. Nothing we wrote was considered exciting or emotional, and exclamation points were viewed as showing too much emotion.

My teachers were in good company in disliking the exclamation point.  Fiction writers for centuries had condemned the use of exclamation points in fiction-writing. Both Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald are credited with saying that using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.

But then I started sending and receiving texts. The old exclamation point rules didn’t apply there. And now I would say the rules—at least for certain legal correspondence—have changed.

This blog is about listening like a lawyer. Lawyers listen to things judges, clients, and other lawyers say out loud. But they also “listen” to writing:  opinions from judges, emails from opposing counsel and clients, and notes from colleagues. Some people read written communications out loud, but even if we don’t, we read and “hear” them in our head.

And I don’t “hear” exclamation points as exclamations anymore. I’ve started to listen to what I read from law students and new law grads and my college-age daughter. I’ve learned that exclamation points don’t say “Yes!” or “Ah!” anymore. Instead, they say, “I hear you” or “I’m not angry” or “We are in this together” or “Our relationship is on solid ground.”

Let me explain. My job involves regular email correspondence with associates at my law firm. It’s a unique position. I work as Schiff Hardin’s legal writing coach and read and comment on written work—memos, briefs, articles, web content, blog posts, and anything else summer associates or associates write. My interactions are almost exclusively with people under 35, and most are with people between 25 and 30. Sometimes associates reach out to me to ask me to review a piece of work—and sometimes I reach out to them.

This is how it goes: at the start of every week, I send around an email to all of the associates at the firm reminding them of my existence and asking if anyone would like to work together during the week. I ask them to fight against the idea that they should be able to figure out their jobs by themselves and do not need to ask anyone for help. I ask that they embrace a “growth mindset,” which holds that abilities are not fixed in space but can be developed with perseverance and hard work.

Exclamation points play an important role in our correspondence. They help young associates and summer associates win the fight against going it alone. Sometimes I’ll get a return email letting me know that the associate is writing a blog post and would like to send it my way. Often the email either starts with “Hi Julie!” or ends with “Thanks in advance!” The message is clear:  I am putting myself out there and am interested in working together.

Listening like a lawyer means matching the tone of the person speaking to you. So I respond with exclamation points of my own: “Thanks for reaching out!” or “Sounds good!” or “My pleasure!”

And I submit that the exclamation point has a new meaning and a legitimate role in business correspondence.

Legal communicationProfessional development

New favorite hashtag: #PracticeTuesday

Sean Marotta, an appellate-practice specialist at Hogan Lovells, and Rachel Gurvich, a legal writing professor at the University of North Carolina, have started a new tradition on Twitter: #PracticeTuesday. Each Tuesday night, they launch a discussion on good habits, best practices, and useful tips for law practice. The hashtag for tweets on this topic is #PracticeTuesday. Today (Tuesday, Nov. 29), David Feder of Munger, Tolles & Olson, and very recently a law clerk with U.S. Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch, took the lead on the #PracticeTuesday discussion. Even without joining Twitter, I believe anyone can view the tweets with this hashtag at http://www.twitter.com/#PracticeTuesday. If possible, it’s more beneficial to follow the Tuesday discussions it in real time or by checking in at regular intervals.

The advice shared on #PracticeTuesday thus far has touched on many important topics such as advanced legal writing, marketing yourself to colleagues, and stuff they didn’t teach you in law school like launching a conference call. Here are just a few good examples of #PracticeTuesday tweets, mostly from the November 29 discussion. I highly commend the #PracticeTuesday discussion to associates wanting to do great work, partners hoping to receive great work, and professional development teams seeking to provide training and content that fosters great work.

Collegiality:

Helpfulness:

Sociability:

Not being rude:

 Asking the right questions when taking assignments:

Recognizing assumptions and clarifying when needed:

Accountability:

Assertiveness (part I):

 Assertiveness (part II):

Saying no (entire thread on this):

Understand feedback (part I):

Understanding feedback (part II):

Client developmentClient relationshipsClinical legal educationCross-cultural communicationEmotional intelligence

Loving your lawyer (part 1)

Last week once again America—or at least American lawyers—celebrated “Love Your Lawyer Day.” See also #loveyourlawyerday on Twitter. Beyond the marketing hype, there’s a good question:

What makes people love their lawyers?

The first answer is competence. A 2002 study of how the public perceives lawyers found the majority of consumer clients to be satisfied with their lawyers:

Consumers tell stories of lawyers who apply significant expertise and knowledge to their cases, identify practical solutions, and work hard on behalf of their clients.

The survey also delved into various aspect of lawyers’ performance with clients. 72 percent of clients were very satisfied with their lawyer’s knowledge of the law. The study did go into some factors beyond hard-skill competence. For example, 68 percent were very satisfied with how the lawyer handled the initial conversation.

This study did not ask participants to rank which criteria were most important, or most strongly correlated with satisfaction. It did not ask them whether they found it more important that the lawyer knew the law, as compared to handling the initial conversation effectively.

Analyzing a study of big-firm clients in the U.S. and similar studies in Australia, Professor Clark Cunningham’s paper “What Do Clients Want” delved deeper into the causes of client satisfaction and dissatisfaction. In these studies, the comparative importance of competence appears to be more complicated (emphasis added here):

Many lawyers equate client satisfaction with the outcome achieved; however, studies over the past three decades in three different countries has produced impressive evidence that clients evaluate their lawyers’ competence more in terms of the process experienced by them in the representation than the outcome.

It seems clients see competence as necessary but not sufficient for client satisfaction. Competence is the baseline, and something else is what makes the difference in client satisfaction or dissatisfaction. What is that something else?

Although there was widespread client satisfaction with the specialists’ legal knowledge and skills [in the Australian study of clients], the evaluators also found “consistent evidence of client dissatisfaction with the provision of services, and the quality of the service-delivery process.” According to this study (emphasis added):

Practitioners are concentrating on developing their knowledge and skills to deliver better outcomes; but their clients, expecting both technical competence and results, are being disappointed by the process of getting there. Clients complained about the quality of their lawyers’ services in terms of inaccessibility, lack of communication, lack of empathy and understanding, and lack of respect . . . .

The original idea for this post was to write about the “emotional labor” lawyers perform for their clients and others. Emotional labor means, basically, showing up and being constructive even when it’s difficult: “the effort it takes to keep your professional game face on when what you’re doing is not concordant with how you feel.”  Does a lawyer’s performance of emotional labor make the client “love” the lawyer more?

That question led to the more basic question of what motivates client satisfaction, which led to this overview of the studies above. (There must be more information; please direct my attention to additional good data on client satisfaction.) And the overview here suggests it will be worthwhile to explore emotional labor in more depth in a future post. Emotional labor does seem connected to accessibility, open communication, empathy, and respect.

Feedback would be welcome on clients “loving” their lawyers, client satisfaction generally, and the idea of lawyers performing emotional labor for clients, colleagues, and others. Please share thoughts in the comments or on social media.

Client developmentClient relationshipsClinical legal educationCollaborationInterviews

Categories of listening

Katrina Lee from Ohio State tweeted earlier this week:

The article referred to in her tweet is by  Jim Lovelace, Director of Talent Development at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, and was published in the ABA Law Practice Today.

As Katrina said, it is a quick read. And it’s a pretty powerful read, too. The essential premise is that to be effective, a listener must move beyond “self-focused listening.” What does that mean?

In my 25 years of experience as a practicing lawyer and legal career development professional, I have observed that lawyers spend the vast majority of their work time—when they are not talking, that is—as self-focused listeners. When they hear others’ stories, their minds are occupied with: What are the flaws and where are the potential liabilities? Where is the “good stuff” on which I can build a case? They dig for facts, often asking for more information to construct their narratives and theories. This is not surprising. This is what lawyers have been taught, from law school onward, to do.

But there’s more to listening than this self-focused approach. Lovelace introduces empathic listening and comprehensive listening, two other categories of listening that may not be right for a contentious deposition but are very, very right for interpersonal situations at work. Lovelace uses a hypothetical in which a trusted senior associate blindsides the senior partner by announcing he’s leaving the firm. Different listening methods can affect not just the tone but the outcome of such conversations.

Lawyers love categories, and somebody this blog will have a pull-down menu listing the many categories of listening that communications experts have identified. When it comes to (1) self-focused listening, (2) empathetic listening, and (3) comprehensive listening, Lovelace’s article is an excellent introductory resource. It doesn’t take long to read, and it’s really good. Thanks for the tweet recommending the article, Katrina!