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Beyond The Law: Expanding And Strengthening Your Career Skills

At a time when in-house lawyers are weathering a downpour of pink slips, it’s imperative to inventory and strengthen your talents and capabilities. Your career umbrella may depend on how far you go beyond knowing the law.

Here is a framework for assessing how to complement your substantive legal knowledge with skills in three areas: delivery of legal knowledge, management of others, and improvements in your general abilities. This article summarizes what you can do in each of those three talent areas.

Readers who would like a list of books that describe what you can do to improve in these areas should e-mail me at [email protected].

Delivery Of Legal Knowledge

Your talents lie not just with your law school learning and the legal experience you have accumulated in practice, but also with five skills that complement and boost your knowledge of the law. Those five skills are:

Negotiating: Most lawyers would be well served to take a course or study a book on achieving their clients’ goals in negotiations. For example, do you decide on a BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement)?

Making decisions: Many books and guides exist that can help lawyers think through possibilities and reach a decision. Humans have well-known gaps in their reasoning, such as cognitive dissonance and the recency effect (see Morrison, Rees W., “Judgment Day,” 24 Legal Times 39 (Nov. 19, 2001)).

Delegating work: If there are junior lawyers or paralegals in the department, senior lawyers can be more effective if they delegate skillfully. Clear directions, empowerment and feedback, for instance, enhance delegation.

Listening: All lawyers will be better able to apply their knowledge of the law if they actively listen. You need to pay attention, ask probing questions, paraphrase, and understand your client’s needs.

Writing: Words are a lawyer’s stock in trade and written words are their heritage. To write fluently and clearly complements a lawyer’s knowledge of the law.

Management Of Others

Packaging and delivering your legal advice fits well with a second cluster of talents: How you lead and work with others in the department. Again, I suggest you inventory your abilities in the following five areas, and build up those where you can improve:

Building teams: Years of research have tested many techniques for creating capable teams, guiding them through forming and performing, and boosting their effectiveness. These methods include using agendas, appointing scribes and involving all team members.

Leading people: More than any other topic in the management literature, leadership has filled shelves of books. To understand how to motivate people, set visionary goals, persevere in the face of opposition, spread recognition, and accomplish the many facets of leading people well serves an in-house lawyer.

Mentoring and giving feedback: If a lawyer has subordinates, that lawyer should learn how to guide them to succeed. Much learning exists on the topic of critiquing performance and directing people toward making the most of their skills.

Psychometrics: Many diagnostic and evaluative instruments exist, such as the Emotional Competence Inventory; the Herman Brain Dominance Indicator; the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior (“FIRO-B”) instrument; Meyers-Briggs; the DiSC Profile; and the Conflict Dynamics Profile. Understand their applicability and insights — about you and your department — and you will bolster your career survival rate.

Managing conflicts: Work, especially lawyering, involves conflicts with other people. Many techniques are available to help lawyers make their way through stressful minefields.

Overall Improvements

The third way to strengthen your career capabilities involves a handful of personal effectiveness techniques. The five that follow cover a wide range of talents that will help give you a career safety net:

Managing projects: For years, researchers and practitioners have studied how best to bring a long-term project to a successful conclusion. Software, motivation, phasing, and communication are elements of project management that lawyers can learn.

Using metrics: Numbers, such as total legal spending as a percentage of revenue, and graphs, such as showing employment discrimination cases over the past five years, should be tools employed with facility by lawyers.

Satisfying clients: When asked to rate aspects of their law department’s performance, clients place greater value on attributes like knowing the business, being responsive, and avoiding risk aversion than on pure knowledge of the applicable laws and regulations. Clients assume in-house lawyers know the law. What distinguishes them is whether they are as adept with other talents.

Managing time: Lawyers, having only so many hours a day, need to make the most of them. Books, tapes, courses and articles can provide many insights into how to make the most productive use of one’s day (and into one’s nights). Setting priorities, sifting the important from the urgent, and coping with e-mail all fall into this category of skills.

Speaking in public: As lawyers progress, they are more frequently called upon to address groups. Attorneys who are comfortable speaking in public settings, perhaps because they have sought training and practiced, are more likely to move ahead than lawyers who remain tongue-tied, sweaty palmed, and shaky kneed.

Career insecurity will be with us for a while, but in-house counsel still have ways — beyond knowing the relevant laws, regulations, cases and procedures — to give themselves an edge when jobs are precarious. The framework above, with its three general areas and five components of each, provides you both a checklist and an inspiration.

Rate yourself on each component from 1 (poor) to 5 (strong). Then, decide whether to pull up your socks on one or two weaker abilities or to add a top hat to some of your strengths. Either way, you will strengthen your career position and enjoy even more the practice of law.

Rees Morrison CMC ([email protected]) has been consulting with law departments for 15 years on how to better manage themselves and their outside counsel. A former practicing lawyer and the author of six books, he is a director of Hildebrandt International. His latest books are Law Department Benchmarks: Myths, Metrics, and Management (Glasser LegalWorks, 2d Ed. 2001) and Client Satisfaction for Law Departments (Corp. Legal Times 2003).

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