When it comes to the art of communication, lawyers are expert at persuading others and explaining complex issues to clients. Within the office, however, they are not always as adept at using these skills to promote overall harmony and productivity.
Corporate lawyers communicate with a wide range of professionals, from general counsel on down to employees who are their junior. These interactions may be direct and real-time, such as project team meetings, or they may consist of written memos, e-mail or text messages. Regardless of the format of interaction, the ability to communicate smoothly with colleagues is critical to gaining buy-in and cooperation, which is, in turn, key to long-term career success and professional satisfaction.
There are a number of ways to improve communication abilities in a variety of workplace encounters, across a range of formats. Here are six tips.
Treating coworkers like clients. Responsiveness and a service-oriented attitude are standard when dealing with clients, and counsel can use the same approach with colleagues. The first step is attempting to anticipate their needs – whether they represent a senior, peer or subordinate relationship. In general, volunteering to help is superior to waiting to be asked for help. When working with other members of a project team, counsel should think in terms of how to make their teammates’ jobs easier – and, thus, moving the project forward as efficiently as possible.
Adapting communication style to the recipient. For smoother interactions and less friction, counsel should identify the others’ preferred methods of communicating and not treat every coworker exactly the same. For example, some may prefer succinct, bullet-point e-mail messages, while others favor 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 a hint as to their preferences. By all means, counsel should respect the privacy of a colleague who is working behind closed doors on an urgent project and not interrupt unless absolutely necessary.
Striving for clarity. When conveying information, it’s important to use direct, specific language and provide complete details without getting caught up in minutiae. Whether speaker or listener, one good technique is to ask questions. For example, when giving instructions to a legal secretary, lawyers could conclude by asking, “Is there any other information you need from me?”
Being diplomatic. Sometimes it’s the way something is said rather than what is said. To avoid sounding demanding or critical, there are conversational “buffers,” which can be used to reflect an awareness of and respect for the pressures a colleague is facing. 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, it could be helpful to 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?”
Listening attentively. The key to good communication is not eloquent speech but active, engaged listening. In any encounter, counsel should 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, a senior lawyer might speak with unusual urgency, pace about the office, loose her train of thought or exhibit other signs of stress while delegating responsibilities. Picking up on these signals, counsel might offer to take on additional tasks that could help her out. This type of listening “beyond” what is said will earn lawyers a reputation as helpful, proactive team players – and win their supervisors’ appreciation and gratitude.
Having the end in mind. Before writing a memo, leaving a voicemail message or speaking directly to another individual or group, counsel should try to first identify the purpose and desired outcome for the communication. By stopping to consider expectations, deadlines and requirements for instructions or feedback, they can craft a message, statement or presentation that is concise and goes right to the heart of the matter, without extraneous information or unnecessary details. When handling sensitive or confidential matters, it’s a good idea to 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, intense environment of law offices, and the ability to interact productively with senior attorneys, colleagues and subordinates alike is critical to the professional success of every corporate lawyer. Studying communication strategies is worth the time and effort because it promotes the ability to get messages 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.