Working Smart: Playing Well With Others
by Valerie Fontaine
Special to Law.com
March 21, 2011
Attorneys need relationship-building skills from day one. You need these capabilities to gain the respect and confidence of everyone, including firm colleagues, clients, potential clients, other lawyers, staff and judges. To succeed, you must get along with people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Diligence and competence are givens, but personal qualities such as leadership, listening and communication skills, as well as organizational skills, are essential to progress in your legal career.
Many law firm partners would say that the majority of their time is spent winning new work and managing client relationships. Lawyers need the ability to persuade, market and sell while maintaining their professional demeanor. Networking and client care are as important in a law firm as giving accurate and ethically sound legal advice.
All of the legal knowledge in the world will do you and your clients no good if you cannot relate to one another. To develop business and service a client's legal needs effectively, you must understand the problem or goal fully. That requires the ability to hear the client's concerns, creative and strategic thinking to devise possible solutions, communication skills to convey the various options available in language they can understand, and judgment to assist the client in selecting the best course of action.
Clients need a lawyer's perspective and personal connection, which must be balanced against the professional detachment taught in law school. Moreover, in some instances, clients also need empathy and appreciation of the sensitivities surrounding the legal problem, especially in practice areas such as employment and family law.
A good trial or deal lawyer must effectively read the emotional tone of any situation and respond appropriately. While it's true that you "attract more flies with honey," some law practice situations call for a more confrontational approach. Balancing these two approaches can create an understandable tension for lawyers trained to define effective advocacy as adversarial conduct. A good lawyer knows when to be tough and when to be nice, and is effective in both types of situations.
Similarly, an attorney must also exercise superb interpersonal skills in the office environment. You must be able to get along and communicate with superiors, colleagues, more junior attorneys, paralegals and staff, in order to get your work done efficiently. The practice of law is a team effort and you cannot afford to alienate any member of your team. Moreover, you must learn to motivate others and delegate work properly, so that each person's skills are being put to their highest and best use. Lawyers who collaborate well possess the ability to identify and bring out the best others have to offer, and to submerge their own positions and egos where necessary, in order to reach the optimal client outcome. The ability to give supportive and critical feedback is necessary. This is where management, leadership and team-building skills come into play.
Another essential skill for the successful practice of law is the ability to juggle numerous projects at once, and complete them all well and on time. Thus, you need to keep your eye on all the balls constantly, while simultaneously focusing on the work at hand. Clients increasingly express frustration that many lawyers lack project management skills -- the ability to plan, organize and manage resources to successfully complete specific objectives within scope, quality, time and budget restrictions. Therefore, you must organize your work efficiently, manage your time and resources, set priorities, meet deadlines, and be able to foresee and head off potential crises -- and be able to ensure that others on your team are doing the same.
ASSESSMENT AND SKILLS DEVELOPMENT
The skills required for running a successful law practice can be quite different from legal practice skills, requiring more highly developed people skills. Generally, as lawyers progress in their careers, they have more lawyers working for them. You may not naturally develop management and leadership skills along the way; rather you will need to go after the tools you need to build successful practices, have happy clients, supportive and engaged staff and a collegial relationship with your peers.
It's relatively easy to determine whether you have a grasp of basic legal and business concepts, but you need to be brutally honest with yourself about your interpersonal and management capabilities. Your shortcomings may be brought to your attention through feedback from supervisors or colleagues, but you also might want to discuss your mastery of these skills or lack thereof with a trusted friend, colleague or mentor.
Take advantage of any available professional development programs offered by your firm, but you may find that you need additional training in some of these areas. You must be proactive in filling in the gaps in order to move ahead in your career. Finding role models and developing mentors will help, and you may be able to gain some of this knowledge through continuing legal education courses. You also might consider taking some additional courses in personal development, leadership, and management skills. If this kind of training is not available through your local bar association, you might consider offering to coordinate a relevant program.
Acquiring these "soft skills," as opposed to hard legal and business knowledge, doesn't make you a softie; it makes you a savvy lawyer.
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