In today’s team-based environment, good communication is essential to being able to do your job well. As a legal professional, your interactions with your coworkers and other employees may be direct and real-time, such as project team meetings, or they may consist of written memos, email or instant messages. Regardless of how you interact, the ability to convey information, ideas, recommendations and opinions clearly and succinctly — in both verbal and written form — is central to your effectiveness and success in the law office, as well as your long-term career advancement and professional satisfaction.
There are a number of ways you can improve your communication abilities in a variety of workplace encounters, across a range of formats. Here are six tips.
1. Treat your coworkers like clients. Responsiveness and a service-oriented attitude are standard when dealing with clients, and you can use the same approach with your colleagues. Start by anticipating their needs. For example, volunteer for additional duties, rather than waiting to be asked for help. And arrive at meetings or discussions with essential data, files, research or other materials in hand. When working with other members of the project team, ask them how you could make their jobs easier.
2. Adapt your communication style to the recipient. For smoother interactions and less friction, try to identify your target audience’s preferred methods of communicating. For example, one supervising attorney may prefer succinct, bullet-point e-mail messages, while another favors detailed memos and updates in hard copy format. Similarly, some colleagues may not mind interruptions for small talk or quick questions during the workday while others do not encourage it. Observing their body language and how they interact with others will give you a hint as to their preferences. By all means, respect the privacy of a colleague who is working behind closed doors on an urgent project and don’t interrupt unless absolutely necessary.
3. Strive for clarity. When conveying information, use direct, specific language and provide complete details without getting caught up in minutiae. If you’re in the role of listener, try paraphrasing what’s been said to ensure that nothing was “lost in translation.” Whether speaker or listener, one good technique is to ask questions. For example, when giving instructions to a legal secretary, you could conclude by asking, “Is there any other information you need from me?”
4. Be courteous. To avoid sounding demanding or critical, you can employ conversational “buffers” that reflect an awareness of and respect for the pressures your colleagues face. For example, in written and verbal exchanges, phrases such as “When you have time…” or “If it’s convenient for you…” can soften the impact of requests. If an immediate response to an urgent matter is required, you might acknowledge the other person’s time constraints and responsibilities – e.g., “I know you’re busy, but would you have time to review this brief I wrote by the end of the day?”
5. Listen attentively. The key to good communication is not eloquent speech but active, engaged listening. In any encounter, strive to shut out distractions and disturbances and focus not only on what the speaker is saying, but also on tone and nonverbal cues. For example, your supervising attorney might speak with unusual urgency, pace about the office, loose her train of thought or exhibit other signs of stress while delegating responsibilities to you. Picking up on these signals, you might offer to take on additional tasks that could help her out. This type of listening “beyond” what is said will earn you a reputation as a helpful, proactive team player – and win your supervisor’s appreciation and gratitude.
6. Have the end in mind. Before writing a memo, leaving a voicemail message or speaking directly to another individual or group, try to first identify the purpose and desired outcome for the communication. By stopping to consider expectations, deadlines and requirements for instructions or feedback, you can craft a message, statement or presentation that is concise and goes right to the heart of the matter, without extraneous information or tangential details. When handling sensitive or confidential matters, carefully consider not only who needs to know, but also how much information should be shared.
Effective verbal and written communication is essential in the fast-paced legal profession, and the ability to interact productively with colleagues is critical to your legal career success. By studying communication strategies such as these, you can improve your ability to get your message across in any situation or format.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.