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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Before we start – help me help you: Send your tips for bouncing back from work challenges. Tweet to @babysharklaw or send an e-mail. Easy! I will compile a roundup for a future column. Thanks. Good goes around!

Q: I know of times when lawyers have sugar-coated feedback and left people confused about how they are doing. And a senior associate recently joked that new lawyers need to learn how to “take a hint.” Do you have suggestions on this?

A: Ah. The world would be so much less interesting if people always said what they meant and meant what they said. (And there would be so many fewer lawyers.)

We all have to make judgments about words and actions. Since you are reading this, I expect you are more perceptive than most of your peers. Share this post, and your colleagues may thank you someday. Honing skills for reading between the lines and discerning poppycock is important for all lawyers.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Pay Attention. Develop your listening skills. During a conversation make eye contact to help stay focused. If your mind starts to wander, make a conscious effort to refocus. Pay attention as if you were going to have to tell someone else precisely what you heard. Try not to interrupt or think about what you are going to say until the other person has come to a natural pause. Thinking about how you may respond can take your focus away from what the person is saying. And if you interrupt, the other person may decide that talking is a waste of breath and may hold back.
  1. Check your assumptions. Trying to anticipate what people will say is a natural instinct, but it can lead you astray. Making assumptions about what a person will say or how a person should react can keep you from discerning the real message. Check your assumptions by trying to imagine yourself in the other person’s situation. And again, instead of anticipating, stay focused and digest the message.
  1. Make it safe. Ask yourself if there is a reason a person might sugar-coat a message or be reluctant to give you the full scoop. Could the speaker think you might react badly? Does the speaker dislike conflict? Are there other reasons? Try to make it safe for people to give you complete information. This doesn’t mean you encourage people to unload with an emotional diatribe. But letting people know that you appreciate frankness can help you get more information.
  1. Look for Omissions. Hints often involve incomplete responses. Look for missing information and ask questions to fill in the gaps. Consider the following explanation from a partner about why the partner does not have any work for the associate: “We just don’t have enough work right now to keep everyone busy.” Among the glaring omissions, the statement leaves out the reason the specific associate is not getting work. And there is no mention of whether the situation may change or what the impact will be to the associate if it doesn’t change.
  1. Pay attention to non-verbal cues. In addition to unspoken words, pay attention to other non-verbal cues. Does the person make eye contact? Does the person seem emotional? Body language gives you important information to help interpret what you hear. And notice whether words and actions are consistent. A person may say your work is “fine,” but won’t give you more work and seems to avoid you. Those may be signs that “fine” meant, “not so great.”
  1. Understand expectations. Differing expectations can also lead people to miss clues. Consider this statement: “We love your work, we’d just like to see more of it.” Coming from a power-biller, the statement probably means, “You need to work harder.”
  1. Confirm your understanding. All of these tips will help you gather information to make sure you get the hint. But there is no substitute for direct communication and confirmation. At the end of a conversation, clarify your understanding and ask if there is anything else you should know.

Good luck!

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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