Although communication skills are required for any attorney to be effective, not all attorneys communicate effectively or even think about communication styles. Sometimes attorneys advocate well on behalf of a client to a third party but are not effective advocates for themselves. All attorneys – both men and women – can learn from the following communications “best practices.” Those tips are meant to be helpful as you communicate with colleagues, with clients, and with opposing counsel and third parties on behalf of your clients.
Knowing your audience is important no matter whom you are communicating with. It helps to know how best to deliver your message. Consider the following.
- What is his or her preferred method of communication? Is your audience that computer-savvy person who likes to get a quick text or e-mail about the issue? Maybe your audience is the type of person who reads during their commute home and would prefer to receive a long memo that he or she can study, take notes, and digest in greater detail. Some people prefer to get information via voicemail, as some individuals comprehend better audibly or prefer to hear voice inflections that are not present in an e-mail. People will listen more effectively to what you are saying if it is communicated in a manner that comes naturally to them. They may otherwise spend time being distracted by the way that the message is delivered. This could limit their processing of your important information.
It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a casual communication. All communications are strategic. Whether you are sending an e-mail to a colleague or communicating with opposing counsel, do not communicate anything until you determine what it is that you are trying to accomplish. Should your communication include an element of advocacy, and would it be best presented in a short summary or a white paper?
- How does he or she learn best? Simply because you work and collaborate with attorneys most of the time, many of whom have the same or a similar educational background and frame of reference as you do, does not mean that each lawyer digests information the same way that you do. You are allowed to have your own communication style. Some people are generalists who enjoy a high-level survey of the information that you are providing to them. Others are specialists who react to a situation better with a detailed analysis in front of them.
- Are your communications spoken in the right language? Many clients do not have in-house attorneys so your client may be someone with no legal background. You are not likely to advance your career or impress most people by providing them with a project full of legal jargon. It is your job to make your work product something that can be understood, analyzed, and passed along to others, especially to those who do not speak in legal terms.
We often say that 50 percent of the project is getting the right legal answer. The other 50 percent is how that answer is shared – with your supervisor, client, third parties and the world.
- Is your audience a man or a woman? This may sound sexist in today’s world, but in reality, more attention needs to be paid in the workplace to the differences in the communication styles of men and women. Research has shown that men speak more directly and women communicate with more eye contact. There is much you can learn from studying communication styles that will help you be more successful. These lessons are not limited to communication styles between the genders. They also include ethnic and cultural communication style differences. Spend time observing and learning about the different communication styles to be sure you are not muddling your message.1
- Are you making any assumptions about your audience? There is no such thing as “over-communicating.” There is, however, such a thing as “under-communicating.” Just because your goal is clear to you does not mean that others are aware of it, understand it, or are focusing on it. Everyone operates from a different perspective. For example, in working with many of our senior executive women clients, we became aware that senior executive women were not being given the same consideration for corporate board seats as the senior executive men. These women were clearly ready, willing, and able to serve on corporate boards. They just were not being asked.
The women were not always being overlooked for negative reasons. The board members and nominating committee chairs simply had not thought to consider these candidates who do not look like the current typical corporate board member. Once women made their governance goals known to others, they increased their chances to serve on corporate boards. Every networking opportunity is an opportunity to share your goals.
Making your objectives known within an organization is crucial to your advancement. You should not assume that others can read your mind. If there is something (a project, a job position, a speech opportunity, a committee, a leadership opportunity) you are interested in within your firm or company, you need to be sure others know.
Lynn Shapiro Snyder is a shareholder of Epstein Becker & Green, in the Washington, D.C., and New York offices, respectively. Ms. Snyder is author of “Advancing Women in Business: 10 Best Practices,” published by the Women Business Leaders of the U.S. Health Care Industry Foundation, 2008. She can be reached at LSnyder@ebglaw.com.
1. Some books about communication styles that we have enjoyed are those written by Deborah Tannen. Her work was a source of the “gender communication difference” research mentioned above.