Communication Skills for Young Associates

Jay Sullivan, a partner at Exec Comm, offered advice on effective professional communication at an event co-hosted by Ms. JD and Columbia Law Women's Association at Columbia Law School.  The ability to communicate effectively, whether in a front of a large crowd or in a one-on-one meeting with a partner, can either enhance or hinder our career trajectories.  Despite the importance of oral communication, it is difficult to get honest feedback on how we come across.  Mr. Sullivan suggests the following:

--Avoid looking nervous by focusing on one individual person for 5-7 seconds (the time it takes to complete one thought out loud) and then looking at another person for the same length of time.  Though many people are taught to scan the room while speaking, this action actually overloads your brain with too much visual information, which will likely make you more nervous while speaking.

--Remember to speak slowly since rushing through your content gives the impression that what you are saying doesn't matter and diminishes your presence.

--Make sure the notes you reference while presenting are simple bullet points and and not your entire speech.  Have plenty of white space on the page, and write a few words that will jog your memory about the complete thought you plan to articulate.

--Pay attention to your gestures.  Your intention as a public speaker is to minimize any distractions that might allow your audience to misinterpret your message.  Crossing your arms or clasping your hands could suggest being closed or begging, for example.  To avoid sending your audience unintentional cues with your body language, focus on gestures that are open and natural.

--Plant your feet hip-width apart.  This stance will give you solid footing and prevent shifting back and forth or swaying.

--If seated, use the front 2/3 of the chair.  Lean forward slightly and make sure your hands are visible.  Don't fidget with your pen.

--When taking notes, don't try to write while simultaneously staring at the person speaking.  You appear engaged if you are writing, and it looks odd to write without looking at what you are writing.

--Make sure to organize the content you plan to cover.  A simple formula is your topic sentence (i.e. "You asked me to look into x."), a list of items you plan to cover to address your topic, an explanation of each of the items, a summary of what you just stated, and an articulation of next steps.

Finally, it is important to ask for feedback on your communication skills and to always appear open to any criticism you receive. 

We would like to thank Jay Sullivan for donating his time and resources to the event. After the communication skills workshop, a reception sponsored by Sullivan & Cromwell LLP was held at a restaurant near campus for Ms. JD-affiliated attorneys and women law students from Columbia. To learn how to plan a similar event at your law school, please contact Ms. JD Executive Director, Jessie Kornberg, kornberg@ms-jd.org.

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