January 01, 2016 Rōnin Reports

Polishing the Fundamentals

Benjamin K. Sanchez

Any regular reader of this column knows I am a big proponent of lifelong learning. Just because we lawyers finished law school doesn’t mean we are done with our education. In fact, bar associations and lawyer regulatory agencies require lawyers to attend a minimum number of continuing legal education hours every year in order to maintain their license. I suggest that you spend some of these hours away from learning substantive law and procedure and instead polish up on the fundamentals of our profession.

Writing Well

If you look on my bookshelves, you’ll see a fair number of books dedicated to writing—not only the art of writing but also the fundamentals of grammar and other basics. Maybe I am more of a writing nerd because my mother and stepfather are journalists by profession. Both were in the newspaper business for the majority of their careers. My mother was a copy editor for newspapers and then became a freelance copy editor for magazines. My stepfather began his career as a reporter and then became a news editor (he is currently the public relations director for a major hospital). Both also spent some time in a government press office. My stepfather was a mayor’s press secretary, and my mother worked in the press office of a governor. Needless to say, I had professionals grading my papers before I ever turned them in to teachers as I grew up. The written word was very important in our home!

When we are in school and “English” is a required course, it is easy to focus on the fundamentals of writing. When we are in law school, we all go through a first year of research and writing classes. Unfortunately, after law school, lawyers often stop learning how to improve their writing. They get into habits of writing that never change as they become more experienced attorneys. If a young lawyer is lucky, he gets some feedback from senior attorneys. For the most part, there is no further required learning of the basics.

This probably explains the growth of interest in authors such as Bryan A. Garner (The Winning Brief, The Elements of Legal Style, and Legal Writing in Plain English) and Richard C. Wydick (Plain English for Lawyers). Lawyers learned how to write in plain English as children and then learned to write as lawyers in law school. Now the big push is to convince lawyers to write in plain English. As they say, what goes around comes around.

Speaking Well

The second fundamental of being a lawyer is speaking; so you should continue to improve your speaking skills. You may think that speaking isn’t as necessary for transactional attorneys, but quite frankly you must speak a lot as an attorney. You have colleagues and superiors, as well as clients, witnesses, and opposing counsels. Whether you’re negotiating a company merger or advocating before a judge or jury, how well you speak will be a big factor in the ultimate outcome of the matter at hand.

How do you go about increasing your speaking ability? Here’s a clue: Speak! It’s really that simple. The problem comes in figuring out opportunities to speak. Did you know that Toastmasters International still exists? It’s been around since 1924, and there is likely a club near you (it has more than 15,000 clubs in 135 countries). By regularly giving and hearing speeches and gaining and giving feedback, members become better speakers and become more comfortable with speaking. Although it is not a lawyer-based organization, I know many lawyers in Toastmasters. Granted, Toastmasters is not the only speaking organization out there, but it certainly is the most well known.

If you are not comfortable with speaking to a group just yet, you can practice your oratory skills in the privacy of your home or office with just the video camera on any smartphone these days. There is no right way to speak, but certainly there are distracting mannerisms that you can learn to control. Audiences, whether they are in a corporate boardroom, a jury box, or a live speaking event, all want to listen to authentic speakers. The key is to practice and get good so that you are a polished speaker while still feeling authentic. When you practice by yourself, notice your mannerisms and try to control those that take away from your presentation while keeping those that make you authentic. People who talk with arm gestures will not suddenly be able to talk without them, and quite frankly they would feel less authentic if they did. If you have a lot of unnecessary pauses, say “and” or “like” too much, or have the universal irritating “um” or “uh” in your speech, then you definitely should practice to correct those. Speaking, like anything else, gets better with practice and repetition. The more you speak, the better you’ll become.

Leading Well

While it’s a given that writing and speaking are the fundamentals of our stock and trade as lawyers, I often get a raised eyebrow from people when I talk about leadership. People don’t believe that leadership is a fundamental skill. Some believe that leaders are simply born—either you have the skill or you don’t. I disagree. You can learn to lead and become an effective leader, just as you can learn to write or speak. The bigger question is why leadership is a fundamental skill for lawyers.

As leadership expert John C. Maxwell says, “leadership is influence; nothing more, nothing less.” As attorneys, we are constantly trying to influence our audience, whether that audience be our co-workers, judges, juries, opposing counsels, clients, family, friends, community organizations, politicians, or even ourselves. What’s the point of writing or speaking when you have nothing to offer? Attorneys are naturally entrusted to lead. Our education and knowledge of the laws that govern our society make us a natural fit to be community and business leaders, but I also believe that we need to hone our leadership skills for ourselves. A sole practitioner or small firm owner who cannot lead herself will do her practice and firm harm, more so than an ineffective leader at a larger practice. The smaller the practice, the more important the designated leader becomes. So it behooves you to learn the leadership qualities that will have a tremendous impact in each role you have in life.

There are various organizations that concentrate on leadership and success training. Personally, I chose the John Maxwell Team for my own training. John Maxwell is a former pastor who became a leadership guru and now regularly writes and speaks on leadership principles and trains leaders all around the world. He has published more than 70 books, which regularly make the New York Times’ best-seller list. Maxwell now trains new leaders in his philosophy and techniques and certifies others to speak, train, and coach others. I became John Maxwell Team–certified in August 2015, after having completed six months of training.

Maxwell is definitely not the only leadership expert out there. My friend and ABA leader Melanie D. Bragg has also gone through similar training. Her choice of leadership and success trainer is Jack Canfield, of Chicken Soup for the Soul fame. Canfield regularly teaches a “Breakthrough to Success” seminar and now has his own certification program entitled “Train the Trainer,” which Melanie is currently undertaking. Melanie has been teaching Canfield’s success principles since 2006 and will become certified in 2016. She acknowledges that learning leadership principles has helped her with her clients and in dispute resolutions, including but not limited to mediations.

Regardless of where you learn leadership and success principles, the important thing is to realize that leadership is as fundamental to a successful legal career as writing and speaking. Just as you should constantly strive to improve your writing and speaking skills, so should you learn and improve your leadership skills.

What Will You Do in 2016?

We are in a natural cycle of renewal and dedication at the beginning of the year. We have infinite choices of New Year’s resolutions to make (a topic on which I have written in the past). This year, do yourself a favor and commit to a year of learning and improving the fundamentals of writing, speaking, and leading. I assure you that if you commit to a year, you’ll find you want to commit to a lifetime of learning. Although our formal academic education may have ended with law school, we all should vow to be lifelong students. Join me in this endeavor, and let the world be your classroom.

Benjamin K. Sanchez

Benjamin K. Sanchez is a commercial and collection litigation attorney and JMT-certified coach, trainer, and speaker in Houston, Texas.