8 / January 2015 — NALP Bulletin
Coaching Incoming Associates
on Essential Communication Skills
by Jennifer Greiner
The manner in which an associate speaks and
what she chooses to share with partners and
other attorn...
of 2

NALP Bulletin January 2015

Published on: Mar 3, 2016

Transcripts - NALP Bulletin January 2015

  • 1. 8 / January 2015 — NALP Bulletin Coaching Incoming Associates on Essential Communication Skills by Jennifer Greiner Jennifer Greiner is President of Greiner Consulting, LLC. While everyone agrees that it is crucial for incoming associates to establish themselves as trustworthy, reliable members of their practice groups as quickly as possible, the “how” isn’t always readily apparent to new lawyers. Sub- stantive knowledge and skills development are important; but associates need much more than practical legal skills in order to successfully integrate into a firm, garner key assignments, and become a “go to” resource.The current economicand business climate dictates that new associates build positive internal reputa- tions in order to solidify their place at their firm. The approach that associates take in their written and verbal communication is critical and serves as the foundation upon which associates will build their key relationships. PD professionals play an important and valuable role in educating associates on the communication skills and conventions that are needed to succeed in a firm, whether through one-on-one coaching or in a group setting. What follows are ideas, themes, and guidelines that can be included in these early and ongoing conversations. Written Communication During the course of my 20+ years counseling attorneys at all levels, including junior associ- ates, I’ve too often seen a new associate under- mine his reputation through a hastily written or improperly addressed email, a timid or unclear voicemail, or an overly informal text. With today’s technology, good practices take on even greater significance, particularly as associates are trying to make an immediate, positive impression on partners and other senior lawyers with whom they are working. While there are generational issues at play when it comes to communications, the practice of law is a business with an attendant formality that needs to be acknowledged and embraced. All forms of communication used in a workset- ting, including emails and texts, are business communications and should be appropriately drafted. Associates should tread cautiously when first learning the communication prefer- ences of their superiors and should follow their senior attorneys’ lead, particularly with respect to texting. I customarily advise junior attorneys to avoid texting with senior attorneys until they indicate that texting is an acceptable mode of communication. The practice of law requires clear use of language that is free of mistakes or uninten- tional ambiguity. Internal communications can provide supervisors with a glimpse of how the associate might communicate with a client. As such, associates should be made aware of how essential it is to proof their emails to ensure that there are no grammatical errors or typos, and in most cases, abbreviations should be avoided to ensure clarity and understanding. Incoming associates are often unaware of com- mon conventions regarding how a multiple- recipient email is addressed — i.e., that the recipients are usually added in order of senior- ity. In our experience of offering training to graduating law students and new associates, this particular piece of information is consis- tently appreciated. In the instantaneous environment in which we now live and work, associates should still resist replying immediately to a text or email if doing so will sacrifice quality.The associate’s reputa- tion will be more greatly impacted by a poorly reasoned or loosely drafted response than a slightly delayed one. Associates should also refrain from including anything in an email or text that they would not want forwarded to another recipient, and should use “reply all” or “bcc” only when absolutely necessary.The use of “bcc” is particularly fraught with potential problems, especially if the person who received the email via the bccfunction does not look closely at how he was included and decides to hit the “reply all” button. In lieu of using bcc, I advise that the sender forward the sent email to the additional recipient. While electroniccommunications are an essen- tial tool in today’s law firm environment, they are no substitute for the power of in-person interaction. Engaging in conversations and stopping by the office of a colleague or supervi- sor is critical when establishing relationships, becoming a familiar face within the firm, and growing one’s reputation. “The approach that associates take in their written and verbal communication is critical and serves as the foundation upon which associates will build their key relationships.”
  • 2. 9 VerbalCommunication The manner in which an associate speaks and what she chooses to share with partners and other attorneys provide insights into how she would communicate with clients and represent the firm. Early communications should thus lay the seeds for the nature and depth of responsi- bilities that might be delegated down the road. Because associates’ communications reflect on both themselves and their firms, they should strive to convey maturity, intelligence, trustwor- thiness, and reliability. How can associates make the appropriate impression from day one onward? Advise them to treat every exchange with partners and senior lawyers as if they were interacting with an important client. By way of example, they should go into meetings as prepared as possi- ble, endeavoring to convey an understanding of assignments and their supervisors’ needs. Associates should feel free to ask any necessary questions of their superiors, but their queries should display their intelligence and enthusi- asm, and also their attunement — questions should demonstrate that they have paid close attention to the information that has been conveyed to date. Approaching a superior with a question that has already been clearly answered in one way or another is a surefire way to raise doubts about an associate’s com- mitment, capability, and attention to detail. In that vein, any time an associate meets with a superior, the associate should come prepared to take notes. It does not instill confidence in a senior attorney if an associate is receiving instructions without writing anything down, opting instead to commit instructions to the fallibility of memory. Conversations with fellow associates and staff members should also be appropriate for a business setting. As these relationships evolve and certain friendships develop, associates should remain cognizant that confidences they might share with colleagues can still impact their reputation at the firm. Stories have a tendency to circulate among fellow associates, staff, and more senior attorneys, including partners. Associates should therefore consis- tently use good judgment when deciding what to divulge to colleagues at all levels. Communication as the Key to Successful Working Relationships Associates need to understand that supervising attorneys are likely to have different styles and varied expectations with regard to working with more junior attorneys. At the outset of a work- ing relationship, associates should take the initiative to ask the more senior attorneys how they would like to stay abreast of the associ- ate’s progress on an assigned task, particularly when the project is of a longer duration — e.g., would the senior attorney like to receive periodicupdates of the associate’s progress or solely a completed draft? And, if she would like periodicupdates, would she prefer in-person conversations or email updates? Not all senior attorneys make their expectations clear in this regard, and associates can convey an extra level of commitment and reliability by taking the lead to ensure that they fully understand how each senior attorney prefers to work. Similarly, each senior attorney likely has some- what different expectations regarding written work product, both in terms of layout and of how the content is presented. When working for an attorney for the first time, associates are most likely to produce work product that will be well received if they have had an opportunity to review past assignments that other associates have completed for that particular supervising attorney. It could be instructive for the associate to ask the senior attorney for examples of what he deems especially good work product, or to consult with a more senior associate who has successfully worked for that particular attorney. One of the best learning opportunities for a new associate is inclusion at a client meeting, but it is not uncommon for associates to stumble a bit in their first few client meetings, either because they are participating too much or not partici- pating enough. Because it comes down to the senior attorney’s expectations, it is incumbent upon the associate to ensure that he is com- pletely clear about the nature of the role he should play in the meeting. Associates should always ensure that they are maintaining a consistent, respectful tone irrespective of whom they are communicating with.They should remember that their reputa- tion is formed both by how they communicate with superiors and by how they treat those who support them and their practice. It is equally as important to success to learn to manage down as it is to manage up! Conclusion Incoming associates’ budding reputations are greatly impacted by how they communicate, and therefore associates can benefit greatly from early coaching and training on the particu- lars of standard law firm interactions. PD professionals are in a particularly strong position to serve as key advisors in this regard. By utilizing sound judgment and recognized business standards in their written and verbal communications, associates will be well on their way to establishing themselves as valued members of the firm. n

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