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Interpersonal skills important for lawyers

16 July 2013

The skills required to practise the technical aspects of the law are almost the polar opposite of the skills required to run effective relationships, says corporate psychologist Dr Lynley McMillan.

She draws on 20 years’ business experience – specialising in corporate psychology – with law, finance, accounting, and consulting firms, and has a range of clients including partners, chief executives, and boards of directors.

For example, in-house lawyers have to balance a multi-dimensional role, as they need to advance organisational strategy and align with their internal clients while they retain their independence and ensure compliance with the law which is the core obligation of a lawyer.

“It’s probably fair to say that in law school they’re trained for the second goal brilliantly, but perhaps not quite so much for the first one.”

The stressful and time-scarce nature of the profession compounds the issue.

When time is squeezed by huge workloads and client demands, it mutes our social skills. The higher our workload is, the harder it is to slow ourselves down and know what the other person is going through.

“When someone is pushed for time and building relationships, empathy is placed on a schedule of extinction. This means that the relationship building becomes less satisfying and our interpersonal skills actually begin to diminish. It’s a logical outcome that we become drawn to the technical, as opposed to the interpersonal facets of our roles,” Dr McMillan says.

Research indicates that people gravitate toward law based on having personality traits such as being ambitious, sceptical, perfectionist and a need to be in control.

These qualities that persuade juries work like acid on relationships. 

“It’s a really interesting dilemma that the profession is faced with. If we look at lawyers as a profession they tend to be thinkers and tend to analyse rather than emote, and tend to be task oriented and speak their minds.”

Rather than striving to win, compromise can be an important tool when building stakeholder relationships.

“People are imperfect and they do things wrong; they’re hard to understand sometimes. So the ability to compromise is a really healthy skill to have.

“In a lawyer role, people are required to interact with a huge diversity of stakeholders from employers, partners and financial clients.

“I think the most critical thing that isn’t trained into lawyers is interpersonal flexibility. That’s a core emotional intelligence skill.

“I have colleagues in the psychology profession who have advocated for years that our professions are really similar in terms of needing to understand human behaviour and that there is a really important cross-over.”

Lawyers’ skills v relationship building skills 

  • A lawyer skill is to doubt, but trust is important for relationship building.
  • A lawyer skill is to cross-examine and they will quite often do that when a relationship is under stress.
  • A lawyer skill is to argue, although admitting when you have got things wrong builds a relationship.
  • An attacking stance can be a good skill to have, but when building relationships we need to accept people have weaknesses and sometimes they’re emotional and unpredictable.
  • Lawyers avoid professional vulnerability. Conceding a point is a better relationship building skill.
  • A lawyer skill is to think for others. Listening or respecting other’s opinions is a relationship building skill.  

Having the ability to ‘change gears’

Switching from cut-throat courtroom etiquette to professional relationship building with a client requires a deliberate choice.

“In my professional experience it’s the gear-change which is the most difficult, especially when we come back to time-squeeze. We all do what we know best when we are under pressure and that takes us back to our fundamental training,” Dr McMillan says.

She says a sense of inquisitiveness or curiosity about people in terms of relationship building is paramount.

“What I have seen in the law traditionally is people will form a hypothesis about why someone acted and why they might act in the future and stick with it, because it helps their line of argument.”

Being open to diversity is a great starting point. Simply letting go of assumptions and accepting people as imperfect humans can substantially enhance relationships.

“Lawyers attempt to make a point by collecting appropriate evidence to confirm that point, whereas in building relationships it’s more about inductively taking it as the moment goes.

“There’s a growing need to boost relationship building skills in the law. While the area can get incredibly technical and people have written numerous books about how to do it, they can be an arduous read. The bottom line is having a sense of empathy for where the other person is coming from. It’s pretty much as simple as that.

“To dislocate that sense of wanting to make a point, actively consider the other person’s emotional experience; think about what they want and what they fear gaining or losing. Adopt a stance or sense of empathy, compassion and emotional intelligence and sustainable results will follow,” Dr McMillan says.

Last updated on the 17th March 2016