How to be a More User-Friendly Lawyer

How to be a More User-Friendly Lawyer

A few weeks ago I was having coffee with an attorney, well respected in his area of expertise, and at the top of his field professionally. What he got around to, after talking about his practice and his firm was this, how can lawyers be more user -friendly? Although happy with both his chosen career and his practice, he said that lately he was feeling more in common with those who are critical of attorneys and their ilk. Why is it, he mused, that lawyers can be so difficult to deal with, and what do they need to think about to understand that this is probably not the best way to attract clients and have a great professional life?

So he asked me to write something about it. His recommendation was to create a list of things that lawyers need to do or think about to not just be tolerated by the rest of the world, but to flourish. This is written as his suggestion.

Talk less, listen more.

Lawyers make their living primarily through the use of language. They research, write, and speak. But mostly it is a verbal profession. And because lawyers are often successful through the creation of winning arguments, they have a tendency to apply these skills to all aspects of their lives. Frequently, however, they would be more successful in some arenas by listening more and speaking less. In their understandable desire to get a point across – or win an argument, sometimes attorneys forget to listen to their clients, their employees, their peers, and more importantly perhaps, their friends and family. Resisting the temptation to take over a discussion, or win a dispute can create better outcomes. It is worth trying out.

Sharing information with those around you is not a bad thing.

Because of the strict requirements to maintain confidentiality, lawyers have a habit of sharing information on only a ‘need to know’ basis. This makes sense when it comes to confidential client matters, but as a way of operating at work it is much less useful. Lawyers are often quite averse to having meetings. Used to being left on their own to work on client matters, the idea of sharing lots of information with others is not something that comes naturally. But when it comes to cross selling your business, or running an office, more information is probably better than less. Even in small partnerships it is not unusual for one lawyer not to know what is going on with the person next door. And sometimes hiring or termination decisions are made without much internal consultation. Meetings take place infrequently, or not at all. If you want the organization to run smoothly you will want to share information with those around you. If you find yourself becoming uncomfortable with the number of meetings that you are having with your colleagues you are probably on the right track.

Know what your colleagues are working on.

This is a corollary to the idea mentioned above. One of the ways in which you can cross sell legal work to your current clients is by knowing what kinds of things other people in your firm are doing. The best source of business for any firm is a current client, but rarely does a lawyer from one area of practice know what his or her colleagues are doing at any given time. An internal newsletter, checklist, or intranet is a good way to track new clients or source information about the expertise of your colleagues. It’s hard to refer business to other lawyers in your firm if you don’t know what they have accomplished. It’s worth spending some time knowing.

Being rigorous doesn’t mean being a jerk.

Sometimes lawyers forget when to turn down the heat. Making it difficult for opposing counsel to get documents, failing to return phone calls from other lawyers, or just slowing down the discovery process is not necessarily going to lead to getting the best result for your client. One slight begets another. In the end, your client will end up paying more for a case that is moving slowly and it’s likely that you won’t impress the judge. Future contacts with opposing counsel are unlikely to improve. Assuming you aren’t the problem, sometimes being gracious can help move along another attorney who is behaving badly.

Risk is sometimes necessary to find new opportunities.

Law is based upon precedent. After studying the dire outcomes found in case law over a three-year period, newly minted attorneys are afraid to cross the street. While preventing and mitigating risk is an important client skill, there are times when looking at new opportunities and venturing out is a good idea. If someone wants to talk with you about a new job, buy a business, make an investment, or even start a new career, there’s no need to decide whether or not it’s a good idea until after an offer is made. Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. If you take some manageable risks, good things could happen.

If you only spend time with lawyers, you won’t know how to talk to juries or clients.

Lawyers speak a unique and specialized language. But the average client or juror will not be impressed by your use of industry jargon. If you find yourself socializing only with your peers you will find it harder and harder to make a positive impression on what we sometimes refer to as “civilians”. Remember that civilians will probably be the people who hire you, and ultimately make important decisions about your cases.

Lawyers are frequently smart people – but lots of other people are smart too.

Lawyers often forget that while theirs is a unique profession; it isn’t the only one. It has always amazed me that in the medical field we don’t talk about people who aren’t physicians as “non -doctors”, but this is often what we call people who aren’t attorneys in legal organizations. If your web site lists “professionals,” include all of the people who perform professional functions in your firm. Your internal accountant might be a good source of business – if someone can just find his or her contact information. Just as you wouldn’t ask a human resources professional to try patent cases, it might make sense for you to hire others with expertise in a professional area necessary to perform certain functions in your firm. And at the same time – assume that they are bright and accomplished and treat them accordingly.

Diversity is a fact of life. If you want a successful and smart organization, hire and promote a diverse work force.

Law firms are woefully non-diverse. A recent Sunday New York Times article asking why so few women were becoming partners in law firms was the newspaper’s most e-mailed article in the 24 hour period following its publication. Obviously people are interested. Law firms throughout the country are signing on to statements promoting diversity. Still, little has changed. If we know that problems are best solved with a diversity of viewpoint and perspective, it only makes sense to have a diverse group of employees on board to assist in the process. Firms who are successful in creating a truly diverse work force will have a competitive advantage in hiring and in winning certain clients.

Seek opportunities for feedback.

We rarely know how we are really doing. I am not talking about the annual performance review. I mean how we handled a client problem, what kind of impression we made on the judge at that motion hearing, or how we did at that deposition. When opportunities present themselves, ask for feedback. Don’t just ask a general ‘how did I do?’ question, but rather ask specific questions about how you performed and how you might do better. Your peers and supervisors and clients will be impressed by your desire to do a better job – and you will probably learn something valuable that you can apply the next time around.

No matter what your level in the organization, find a mentor, coach or advisor.

The reason that employers have mentoring programs is because they have read the literature that shows that people do better if they have a person with more knowledge and expertise who can serve as a sounding board and guide. But many mentoring programs aren’t altogether successful. The key is the fit between you and the mentor. Find a mentor on your own if the formal process isn’t working for you – or even if it is. You can never have too many mentors, and it is always a good idea to have someone who is outside your organization with whom you can discuss career and job related issues best not shared in your own office.

Having fun at work isn’t a crime.

Being serious about your work and being serious aren’t the same things. If you are losing your sense of humor at work you probably aren’t enjoying your job that much, and it is likely that those around you aren’t enjoying you that much either. While the work that you do is serious, it isn’t always a life and death matter. Making the work environment pleasant leads to employee longevity, and it’s a good recruiting tool. Although it sounds counterintuitive, sometimes you have to work at having fun, and build it into your office environment.

At the end of your life you probably won’t say – “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

Losing track of what is really important is probably the biggest mistake that anyone can make. Certainly your career is important, but at some point other things take precedence. The lawyer who comes home every night just as the kids are going to bed and the lawyer who never takes a vacation who will have a difficult time really relating to other employees or getting the most out of their lives. And in the end, the filing cabinet won’t give you a hug. So remember to keep your work in perspective with the rest of your life. [1]


1. Wendy L. Werner is the owner and principal of Werner Associates, a legal consulting and career coaching organization.