My guess is that a law firm partner or general counsel might have the opportunity for around 100 high-value conversations every year in their professional life. That is 100 out of the roughly 10,000 conversations the average adult will have each year. What do I mean by high value? A career-enhancing conversation that transforms a situation or a relationship for the better. It might be with a client, a fellow partner, an associate or someone else.
Yet these are opportunities that partners often miss or get wrong. Certainly, I have seen client relationships wrecked, associates demoralised and business opportunities go begging because key conversations were avoided or mishandled by partners.
Not usually from lack of good intentions but simply through lack of skills – not listening (see box, below); lack of self-awareness; lack of confidence outside their own area of expertise; lack of curiosity; asking closed questions; inability to frame a conversation and guide it…
As one law firm partner said to me recently: ‘It’s interesting to reflect on why lawyers seem to concentrate so much on what is written and yet so little on what is said.’
Having said that, I have seen clients revealing fantastic insights, people being inspired and disasters averted because the key conversations were brilliantly managed.
The ability to have such conversations marks out the very best lawyers. These skills will become increasingly must-have for any lawyer who wants to succeed or even sustain their career in the future.
I remember a law firm partner telling me how one of his female senior associates on partner track had approached him to discuss her career. ‘I can’t see any way to reconcile my life outside of work with the commitment necessary to make partner. Can you?’ she said. ‘Not really,’ he replied.
He was well-intentioned and he genuinely did care. He was at a loss to know how to help. Result? A missed opportunity, one frustrated associate and, not long afterwards, another damaging departure. The time is fast-approaching when this kind of outcome will not be career-enhancing for the partner.
What could he have done differently? In a nutshell, he might have:
- allowed himself not to feel responsible for solving the problem;
- expanded the conversation with some thoughtful, open questions (see box below);
- been more open-minded and curious about discovering possibilities;
- listened intently; and
- played back what he had heard to check his understanding.
Having done that, he might then have been able to offer some support or guidance. At the least that associate would have started to think more constructively about her dilemma.
These are coaching-style, leadership skills that can be taught and, with practice, acquired. You do not need to be a business coach. You just need to acquire the key skills that will help you develop a coaching style for your professional relationships.
A difficult client conversation
To illustrate this in a client context, I recall an issue with a major client a few years ago. Our appointment for assignments kept being blocked by someone senior. No-one seemed to know why.
I arranged to meet him. It did not start well. ‘I’m not sure why we’re even having this meeting,’ he said. It eventually came out that almost 14 years earlier he had a dispute with a partner in the firm over fees and told him: ‘I’ll never use your firm again.’
Since then he had changed jobs and risen through the ranks. Still, ‘I’m a man of my word,’ he told me. ‘How could I ever use your firm again without breaking my word?’ It was not asked in a way that invited a solution. I was on the verge of heading out the door empty-handed.
A question popped into my head: ‘How could we achieve redemption?’ To my surprise, there was a remarkable change in his body language. He visibly slumped, put his head in his hands and shook it. ‘How long again?’ he asked looking up at me. ‘Fourteen years,’ I said. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘I did have a dispute with a partner in another firm that lasted 12 years, but he died so that’s over.’
‘I was hoping not to have to go that far,’ I said. ‘Well, I guess 14 years is enough,’ he concluded.
There was something in the word redemption that unlocked the issue for him. A lucky shot on my part. But the point is the right question changed everything.
When you think about it, much of success in business life turns on the ability to manage potentially-transformational conversations such as:
- building relationships with clients;
- promotion processes;
- difficult conversations with clients, partners and colleagues;
- resolving conflicts and disputes;
- managing meetings; and
- managing people.
Success in all these cases often turns on how skilfully the conversation is handled. Putting it this way makes it sound deceptively simple. How hard can it be to have a conversation?
But like computer games, there are escalating levels of complexity and skill. I only discovered this for myself when I took a programme to train as a business coach after my career at Allen & Overy.
Unlike computers, these are conversations that require human qualities of empathy, compassion, contextual understanding, judgement and emotional intelligence – in a word: humanity. Qualities that will become even more important to lawyers’ work as machines and artificial intelligence consume the grunt work.
Ultimately, isn’t almost any conversation potentially significant? Think how many times a conversation in your own life has sparked a new idea, inspired you to do something different, swept away a mental barrier or opened previously-unseen opportunities.
Advisers should ask themselves: what kinds of conversations am I having with my clients? Are they broad ranging, free-flowing and relationship-driven or narrow, stilted and transactional?
There are huge potential upsides for people and organisations willing to acquire these skills: better client relationships and greater opportunities, more motivated people, fewer disasters…
Of course, some people are naturally more intuitive and better at ‘people’ things than others. But almost everyone could learn to ask better questions, listen with more awareness and get better at enabling others to find answers within themselves. You will not learn them by reading a book. Like most important life skills, it takes commitment, time and practice. It can be hard work, but if you persevere, you might be surprised at the difference they make.
The author led Allen & Overy (A&O) between 2003 and 2016, before retiring from the law. He is now chair of a small private equity firm, a consultant and business coach, and currently advising A&O on leadership issues.
Are you really listening?
Which level are you?
When I am talking to clients, in-house counsel, fellow partners or staff about an issue outside my expertise…
- I listen to people but find it difficult to maintain interest in what they are saying, so my mind wanders and I do not hear* everything that is said.
- I listen to people but even if I am interested in what they are saying my mind wanders and I do not hear everything that
- I listen to people and I am forming my response at the same time; I will typically respond with an opinion or view and I do not hear everything that is said.
- I listen to people and I consciously stop myself thinking of a response; I hear most of what is said.
- I am genuinely interested in what people are saying and I concentrate on hearing what they are saying before responding.
- I am genuinely interested in what people are saying, and I concentrate on hearing what is being said, the non-verbal signals, and any other information available to me (eg silence, puzzlement) before responding.
- I can really listen** to that person and have complete focus† on what is being communicated to me while managing any personal interference, ie thoughts, ideas, emotions, reactions or anything which takes my attention away from the task of hearing what is being said.
* hear: listen to the words and register what is being said to you.
** really listen: to pick up on what is being said by ear or by other sensing or intuitive approaches, the spoken and unspoken, without personal interference.
† focus: total concentration.
Ten powerful, open questions
- What would you like to get out of this conversation?
- How important is this issue on a scale of one to ten?
- What is most relevant right now?
- If you could wave a magic wand, what would be the ideal outcome/solution?
- What is standing in the way of your ideal outcome?
- What have you already tried?
- What are you not saying?
- What are your options for action?
- What criteria will you use to judge the options?
- What is your understanding of what we have discussed today?