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Effective communication: the difference between a good and a great in-house lawyer
Lawyers don’t necessarily see presentation skills as fundamental to their job, yet they are judged on them by the rest of the business. We talk to Kent Dreadon, previously Deputy General Counsel and Head of Legal at Telefónica UK Limited (which operates under the O2 brand in the UK) and now Group General Counsel at Ascential, about effective communication skills and how they determine the impact and influence that in-house lawyers have in a business.
How important are communication skills for in-house lawyers?
The real difference between being a great in-house lawyer and being a good one is not your technical legal skills (albeit important they are a given), but your ability to communicate advice effectively in various scenarios.
For example, you bump into a director in the corridor and have just two minutes to get a steer on something: how do you make the best use of that time without bamboozling them or making a fool of yourself? You’re in a leadership meeting listening to general chat: how do you earn respect as a leader when you’ve only got a tiny window to interject? In these scenarios, your communication needs to be short, sharp and clear. You need to present in an effective and interesting way so that you’re not just a boring lawyer who makes everyone’s eyes roll.
More often than not, the whole perception of a person going forward is based around how they perform in a very short space of time, for example in a 20-minute presentation or briefing. As a lawyer that’s terrifying because so many of us think that presenting isn’t our strength. Nonetheless, that’s how you’re being rated.
What have you done to address communication training needs in the legal team?
I was discussing this with our HR Business Partner who suggested unlocking some training budget to focus on communication skills. We’ve done that and it’s been rolled out to my direct reports. Everybody will have different challenges and different things they need to work on. The idea is that we then expose the wider team to what we’ve learnt and get the whole team thinking about it.
We’ve run workshops with external actors and they’re a great way of helping individuals focus on particular areas they need to work on. Broadly speaking, we all know where we can improve. We can improve in terms of how we set out our written advice, be it in a note of advice or an email. The same applies in verbal situations. It requires awareness and thinking in advance about how the presentation and communication of information will make all the difference.
I was keen for the trainers to understand how and why lawyers are particularly bad at communication and that for us it’s the difference between being great at our job and breaking the mould or not.
Why do you think that lawyers in particular often struggle with their communication skills?
If you think about the type of people who end up being lawyers, they tend to be brighter than most. Legal training teaches you to accumulate all the facts and analyse them, apply the technical law, and then come up with an answer. Often the law is grey rather than black and white, so we are not trained to give a clear steer. This is particularly the case in private practice where we may not have a deep understanding of the business and tend to operate in an ivory tower. It’s a big handicap to bring that mindset into an in-house environment.
Lawyers need to learn not to get so caught up in content. When you’re briefing a director on a key issue it’s tempting to think they’re impressed by a lot of content. Essentially they want to know what the options are, the pros and cons, and which option you are recommending they take. They’re prepared to trust you and you’ve got to be prepared to put your neck on the line. The detailed content should be left behind – it’s all about the final bit of the conversation, how clear it is, and how well you can land it in the language of the business.
Your time should be split 50/50 between preparation of the background content and planning how you actually present it. I remember presenting a competition law update to the directors in the graveyard slot at the end of a long all day board meeting. I thought about how we could make it interesting and we decided to split the directors up into teams and do it in the form of a quiz with a couple of silly non legal questions thrown in. It was a good way of getting the main points across and but it took account of where our audience was at. Some lawyers may not be happy taking this approach, which s fair enough, but I was comfortable with the directors seeing me prepared to be light-hearted whilst still being able to deliver the key points.
What will success look like in terms of your team’s communication skills?
For me, it will be what I see of my team when they’re in those situations where their skills are challenged. I’d like to see them get even better in those situations. If there is a difference it will ultimately come back in feedback from the business. We do two rounds of feedback each year and I would like to start to hear even more about how the lawyers understand the business and add value through more than just their legal skills.
Effective communication is fed by a deep understanding of the business, the industry, the directors, the team and the situation. In order to give clear recommendations and advice, you’ve got to be prepared to leave a lot of the information you’ve compiled behind. You have to back a horse and say right, that’s my recommended way through the issue. Be very careful about diluting those recommendations by referring too much to other details.
It’s about clarity of thought. Unless you have that wider knowledge and understanding of the business then you won’t be able to make or communicate the right recommendations. It’s not easy to do and it takes a lot of courage to get it right.
Read another interview with Kent Dreadon here.
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