Talk Your Way to the Top: 7 Practical Tips on Disproving Assumptions About Young Attorneys Through Clear and Strategic Communication
While communication is key to navigating office politics in a big firm, strategic communications become particularly important for a solo practitioner – you are the face, voice, and spokesperson for your firm and your reputation. How you approach communicating with older attorneys can help you exceed expectations and build a strong professional rapport.
Many Baby Boomer (and older) lawyers believe that the new wave of graduating and practicing lawyers, particularly those of “Generation Y” (a/k/a Millenials – born 1980-2002) are “entitled, lazy, selfish, tech savvy, and incompetent.” While many Gen-Yers would agree with at least one (tech savvy), hopefully the other character traits are not true stereotypes. Don’t feel that you need to give up entirely on your priorities of achieving work-life balance, using technology for efficiency, and creating flexible schedules and locations of work. After all, some of these priorities may have contributed to your decision to go solo.
Here are 7 practical tips to improve your communication style to bridge generation gaps:
- Write and speak professionally. You will not be taken seriously if “u” write in text speak. While most younger professionals have the common sense to save acronyms and abbreviations for texting sessions, and not for emails to opposing counsel, do not - I repeat do not – expect professionals to decode Gen-Y text acronyms. Even those who work in the internet and technology space lose respect for young professionals who slip into casual “texting” language or speak in an unprofessional manner. Take, for instance, Peter Shankman, entrepreneur, PR & social media guru, and founder of Help A Reporter Out, (HARO) , undeniably a very tech-savvy and plugged in Gen-Xer. Peter broadcasts that a Harvard graduate ended a cover letter with a job application stating “Again, Mr. Shankman, I look forward to the opportunity to work 4U.” Major fail. Don’t let this happen to you. Period.
- Default to respect. Baby Boomers value the importance of a top-down approach in professional settings, recognition, and respect. In your personal life, you may live by the ethos that people need to “earn your respect,” it can make a big difference when dealing with older professionals to approach them with a sense of inherent respect. They have been in the game for years (decades) before you, so you can surely learn something from them (either what to do, or what not to do). Whether you like every decision an older attorney makes or not, start all interactions form a place of professional esteem and go from there. Start with respect.
- Open up a bit. While the experience may be different if you were a cog (associate) in a Big Law firm, as a solo you are directly communicating with other solos and attorneys as colleagues and contemporaries. Baby Boomers are thought to greatly value rapport and personal relationships, even in a professional setting. While it may surprise you, they might actually care about finding out about you - beyond your litigation strategy against their client. It is second nature for me to shift right into efficiency mode when jumping on a conference call but I find that older attorneys want to first take a few minutes to chat and get to know something about each other. How are the kids? What is the weather like in Maine? How was your vacation? If an older attorney starts asking you questions beyond the terms of settlement, maybe he or she is trying to carve out a way to get to know you a bit and build rapport. Obviously, it is appropriate to set certain boundaries around what you will and won’t discuss in a professional setting, but before you transition right into zealous advocacy in the first breath of a call, take cue from the other end and see if you can ease in after a bit of conversation. You may find some common ground can lay some good ground work. Bonding over a mutual love of the Red Sox could remind you in the heat of things that we are all just people, advocating on behalf of respective clients.
- Always be on time & don’t make a commitment you can’t keep. Make these your professional mantras. Yes, you will run into older and younger attorneys who do not keep to these mantras themselves. However, remember the threshold perception young attorneys are suspected of being lazy and incompetent, and break that mold through practice. If you are running late or behind on a deadline, communicate that change instead of just letting it go by. It shows you respect the deadline and the parties relying on you. If you fear agreeing to turn something around by Friday is unrealistic, have a conversation as to whether that deadline is imperative, or whether Monday would do. Once you have agreed to a meeting time or deadline, utilize your tech savvy strengths to make sure all your calendar reminders and directions are in place to get you there. Being dependable is a great virtue in the legal profession, and honoring your word and attendance will take you far.
- Don’t respond immediately. We all know you are checking your phone constantly and have 24/7 access to your voicemails and emails. You can respond to a substantive email from a colleague or opposing counsel right away (even when away from the office). Or not. Think back to how lawyers used to communicate in writing. Lawyer A would dictate a letter to his assistant, who would type it up, give back for review and comment, and then mail to Lawyer B. Lawyer B’s assistant would bring it in to his office, likely in batches with other correspondence, and he would dictate back a response, then review the typed response, and finally approve it for sending. By the time the response got back to Lawyer A, a few days at least had passed, and Lawyer B had the time to talk through (dictate), mull over, review, revise, and approve the message. During that time, he was substantively and strategically thinking about the impact of the words chosen. I am not encouraging you to put off responses that you feel can be done quickly and thoroughly, but don’t lose sight of the fact that your input and strategy is valuable and takes time. If you always respond immediately, you may be missing the opportunity to spend time to research and consider your response options with your client and in context of bigger strategy. Don’t be seen as a hothead. When you need the time to think things through or research before responding, make sure to do so. It is not a sign of weakness or novice.
- Slow things down. On a similar note, respect the process while moving the ball forward. Maybe you know where you want negotiations to end and think it is fair for all parties. Maybe you read all the negotiation books you could get your hands on, and have your tactics all laid out in your head, that will surely contribute to a winning argument. You want to be efficient in offering the fair and final result in the first discussion, but that might ruffle feathers of a Baby Boomer. To them, there is something to be said for easing into a respectable series of steps - the older generation often respects process and form as much as substance. Remember, many Boomers define themselves primarily by their work life and successes – they may feel that you are rushing the process and acting unprofessionally if you want to zoom past steps that they see as pivotal (even if both ways would get the same or a similar result). So long as the process isn’t just aimed at racking up billable time, it may be worth it to the end result to stop and smell the roses as you agree to another turn of the document for final touches.
- Really listen. Sometimes we are moving so fast, multi-tasking, and improving efficiency, that we forget to take the time to really listen. Do you find that while someone else is speaking, you are just drafting a monologue response in your head and waiting for the time to say it? How important is listening really? I would argue (vehemently) it is greatly important. Surely you understand the need to listen to your clients and the judge – but the importance of active listening should carry over when dealing with colleagues and opponents in your practice. When on the phone negotiating terms of a contract, are you really listening to the words of the attorney on the other end? Is she dropping subtle hints as to the bottom line for her client? Can you ask a few questions to understand the real need behind a revision? This will be much more valuable to you and your client than continuously stating your position in different ways.
Chelsea Callanan is the President of Happy Go Legal, a multi-media resource for new and aspiring legal professionals offering coaching services to attorneys seeking guidance through points of growth and transition in their career, while maintaining work-life balance. She is a 2008 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, and currently practices at Murray, Plumb & Murray in Portland, Maine, focusing on corporate and intellectual property needs of business of all sizes.