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Professional Development

Incorporating Interpersonal Skills in Everyday Law Practice

Luiza Araripe, Laura Castillo, and Theodoros Angelides

Summary

  • Many new attorneys find that being successful requires much more than those skills taught in law schools. 
  • Workplace interpersonal skills are key, such as communication, social and presentation skills, emotional intelligence, and people skills.
Incorporating Interpersonal Skills in Everyday Law Practice
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Throughout law school, professors taught us how to write, think, and research to help us become successful attorneys. But once out in the real world, many new attorneys find that being a successful attorney requires much more than those skills taught in law schools. That is where interpersonal skills come in. Workplace interpersonal skills include communication, social and presentation skills, emotional intelligence, and people skills. Below are several important interpersonal skills to help improve day-to-day interactions for attorneys.

Communication in Law Practice Is Key

Communication in any area of practice is what helps shape our professional reality. Without effective communication skills, an attorney will struggle to accomplish projects, prepare or complete written discovery, depose parties, prepare for trial, write a brief, and complete countless other tasks that attorneys perform daily. The following are a few soft skills that may help guide you through effective communication—especially with a client.

The Communication of Legal Situations and Concepts

Explaining any legal framework to a client, sophisticated or not, can be challenging. Our explanation of the law must be professional yet colloquially understandable. It is best to take a step-by-step approach when discussing legal strategy. For example, you may want to discuss the overall path to trial, but you don’t want to overload the client with all that entails. This must be broken into parts, such as a petition or a complaint, and then discovery requests, etc. Clients feel more involved and in touch with their case when they understand what attorneys are trying to explain and their plan to solve the client’s problem.

Communicating the Bad and Ugly of a Case, with Remaining Possible Outcomes

Attorneys must have frank discussions with clients to manage their expectations and prepare them for worst-case scenarios. An attorney can do this by discussing and managing the client’s expectations at the outset of the relationship. You must be able to have tough conversations and communicate the realities of your client’s case, despite your subjective valuation of the case and its merits.

The Termination of the Attorney-Client Relationship

This is tricky communication because clients typically find it hard to understand why you can’t continue handling their cases. The communication need not be of the merits of the case but rather the decision to terminate the relationship. The best practice following verbal communication is to follow up in writing. As difficult as these conversations may be, you will undoubtedly have to have this conversation with a client at some time in your practice, and you must be prepared.

When developed appropriately, each of these communication skills will enhance your attorney-client relationship. In practice, it’s best to communicate often and remember to communicate legal concepts concisely and clearly; manage a client’s expectations; and be clear, concise, and firm in your communications—even those that terminate your relationship with your client.

Consider the Importance of Multilingualism

In today’s globalized business world, having law firm members who speak more than one language is critical for the success of any legal team. Attorneys and legal staff are constantly exposed to international transactions where effective communication is key for the success of any project, particularly for legal transactions where, for example, contracts, clauses, negotiations, and agreements are undertaken regularly. Language training can effectively prevent miscommunications that will, in turn, avoid bigger issues and save you and your team a headache. When dealing with international affairs, and even some domestic ones, legal teams must think globally, recognizing the importance of multilingualism. When your team can think in more than one language, they will be capable of finding more effective solutions, answers, settlements, and overall optimization of the workload. Do not shy away from learning.

Public Speaking and Presenting in the Legal Profession

Public speaking is part of the legal profession, either with clients, colleagues, in a conference, in court, or even in promoting our legal services. However, fear, shame, and nervousness are common feelings every time we need to speak in public. The following are some tools to combat these feelings.

Fight Impostor Syndrome

One of the biggest obstacles is not believing you have enough knowledge to address an audience. You can make a list of your past successes, your goals achieved, and all the problems you have solved in each past stage of your life to motivate yourself. Remember your potential and trust your knowledge. This will give you confidence during your preparation and in the execution of your speech. Bear in mind that confidence in yourself is key to communicating assertively.

Remember the Social Purpose of the Legal Profession

Beyond recognition, consider that you are helping an audience with your speech. Your audience seeks substance from what you say, whether to solve their legal problem or benefit from your knowledge and experience.

Preparation Is Key

You can write exactly what you want to talk about or the key points. Whichever, practice it in front of a mirror. Seeing yourself as your audience will see you helps increase your self-confidence; correct gestures you might make with your hands, eyes, or mouth; and memorize your speech.

Speak the Same Language as Your Audience

Remember to know your audience and speak in their language. For instance, if you are speaking to entrepreneurs, you should use flexible and nonlegal language because they will usually not have the legal knowledge or experience you have. However, this would be different if your audience is a group of lawyers who will know and understand your same legal language and will be prepared to ask you more technical questions. Consider that speaking with technicalities and complications is not a virtue. When speaking in public, the best skill you can show is the ability to explain complicated things simply. The clearer you are, the more effective your message will be.

Roadmap Your Presentation

As in legal writing, you want to get your audience from point A to point B clearly and concisely. To be an effective presenter, start your presentation strongly, and don’t hide the ball. Give your audience an idea ahead of time of the route you will bring them on.

Aesthetics Matter and Less Is More Regarding PowerPoints

A good rule of thumb for PowerPoint presentations is the 10-20-30 rule. Effective presenters generally use no more than 10 slides, no less than 30-point font on their slides, and 20 minutes to present their ideas.

Have Two Presentations Prepared

Before you give a presentation, consider creating two versions. The first version is more like a brief and has points articulated in full sentences. It includes every point you would ideally address during your presentation, regardless of time. The second presentation, the one you use when presenting, is a condensed version of the first presentation and only includes key points in bullet point form. After the presentation, you can send out the longer version, which helps to reiterate the core message in a clearer, more detailed way.

Decide in Advance if You Will Answer Questions during Your Presentation

People often feel anxiety over the thought that an audience member may stump them with a question they are unprepared to answer during their presentation. Combat this anxiety by deciding ahead of time whether you will answer questions during or after your presentation. In either instance, this allows you to speak on the points you feel most comfortable discussing and creates an opportunity to network further with attorneys in your firm.

Be Authentic

Forget the stigma that lawyers must look serious to be professional. The clarity of your message is what matters. If you’re humorous, you do not have to stop being so when it comes to public speaking. Instead, use that ability to your advantage. Be yourself.

Practicing Emotional Intelligence Is Critical 

Emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and recognize the emotions of those around you, is important for legal teams. Every day, attorneys are exposed to situations with clients and fellow employees, some of which may vary from delivering good news to clients to handling controversies between two parties. Being able to control the situation with emotional intelligence will effectively have a direct impact on the overall outcome of the situation.

Attorneys with training in handling emotions, not only for themselves but for others, are more likely to succeed in persuading, building stronger relationships, and achieving career and personal goals. In addition, one of the most important effects of the correct handling of emotional intelligence is the ability to make informed decisions via understanding the feelings and turning intention to action; knowing inside out the feelings and their operation will make you a great attorney who can help clients make better-informed decisions.

Organizing in Your Law Practice Is Underrated

You are one of the many law professionals with many deadlines, emails, meetings, and projects and only 24 hours in each day to be a superhuman. Several tools can help you realize your work goals while maintaining your personal life and sanity.

Organize Often

The first step into reorganizing your life is to take time to do it every few days: this means it will take you less time because you don’t wait weeks or months to do it, and you can make it part of your regular schedule before work on a Sunday, for example. OK, now try not to add more things to your list (if you can)—this will only make you more anxious and without that feeling of conclusion, making it even more difficult to reach your goal. Now take a deep breath and write everything down: what you have already committed to doing, and what you must or want to do, now and in the future. Delegate every task that does not require you to complete specifically.

Prioritize Your Remaining Activities

Try not to extend priorities to more than three complex activities a day, as too much of it can make you feel stuck and frustrated for not being able to see the evolution. Break big priorities into smaller steps until you achieve results. It helps to make you feel that they are attainable and will give you a clear sense of how much time will be spent on each one.

Once you have completed your priorities for the day, everything else will feel lighter or a bonus because you have reached your main objective. Finally, be mindful that a healthy lifestyle with exercises helps prevent stress hormones, diminishes anxiety, improves sleep, and ultimately increases productivity and creativity at work.

Don’t Forget to Delegate to Others on Your Team

Whether starting as a new associate or moving up to senior or partner roles in their firm, many attorneys take up some managerial duties along with the responsibility of handling some of the biggest cases or clients. Eventually, it may become overwhelming to handle all these tasks alone in the available time. This problem can be solved through delegating.

There is a misconception about delegating—that it means not having control over the result of the task assigned. The following are tips for successful delegation for attorneys and their teams.

Recognize Employees’ Work Attributes

In business, a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) matrix is used to analyze a company’s operational model. Similarly, leaders must observe these traits to delegate tasks to the right person when short deadlines are given, which means recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of all team members.

Provide Clear Instructions

It has been shown that partners in many law firms provide incoherent instructions to associates, leaving them feeling a lack of mentoring and good leadership from their superiors. Clear instructions allow employees to become more resourceful in accomplishing the tasks delegated to them and getting them done faster.

Monitor Delegated Tasks

This is important for two reasons. The first reason is to ensure that deadlines for task progress are met. The second reason is to provide feedback on completed tasks. Delegating tasks without mentoring, especially for junior associates, will backfire, leaving them unsatisfied with the result. It will also leave the junior associate feeling that nothing was learned through the process or that they aren’t fully progressing in their firm. Don’t be afraid to check in with those to whom you have delegated matters, even if it is just to see if they need any assistance or guidance.

Define the Employee’s Role in the Delegated Task

This includes deadlines, responsibilities, and expectations. Communication is paramount for effective delegation, as leaders must clearly set their expectations, and employees must be allowed to voice what they have understood or otherwise need assistance with.

Evaluate Employees’ Workloads

By correctly and fairly evaluating employee workloads, delegating tasks becomes a smoother process without causing stress to the employees. Some of their tasks may need to be assigned to other employees if an urgent task comes in, something they usually cannot do themselves, especially if they feel the pressure of personally executing all the tasks that were assigned to them or if they do not have the authority to sub-delegate any tasks.

Effective delegation creates a better workflow, provides opportunities for growth and mentoring through regular feedback on tasks delegated, and allows senior firm members to allocate their time to issues they must deal with personally.

Interpersonal skills don’t have the much-needed focus in law school classrooms today. Still, there is no question that developing and recognizing these skills will benefit your law practice, no matter what kind of legal work you do. Effective lawyers know to practice and update their skill sets constantly. You can do the same starting today.