Social skills are key to developing a legal practice. Executive coach Joella Bruckshaw talks about the experiences of one trainee.
I don't usually work with people at junior level but recently I was asked to meet Elizabeth a young trainee lawyer. She had excellent research skills and a good understanding of legal problem solving but she was so quiet, her colleagues reported that when she was in a room they jumped when they finally noticed her presence! The firm wanted Elizabeth to be more outgoing so that when she became an associate she would have the necessary social skills to talk to clients and put them at their ease so that she could ask the necessary questions in order to fully understand the brief.
Elizabeth was more than delivering for the firm but her fear of failure meant she was routinely working until 1 and 2 in the morning to make sure that her answers to the legal questions she being asked were correct. To achieve her new goals she would need to reassess some of the conclusions she had reached so far in her life and be open to a new way of thinking. In order to change her thinking she and I would need to gather detailed evidence of her current thinking so that she could understand how to change it. So I set her a group of exercises to get this information.
There is something that often happens when working with people who are highly developed linear thinkers. They know they are good at thinking and it is hard for them to get their minds around thinking about the way they think and how it affects their behaviour!
Elizabeth, like many young lawyers already carried a heavy workload, without the extra demands caused by being so perfectionist and self-critical. When I asked her to gather the information that would help shift her distorted thinking she couldn't see past these pressures, reasoning that as long as she delivered to a high standard everything would be alright. The result was that she neglected to do her exercises!
We needed to sit down and revisit why it was so important for her to build her confidence and self-esteem in this environment, what she would gain if she did and what it would cost her if she didn't. My consulting clients often need this opportunity to recalibrate and 'get it' about what's important when faced with the reality of what they need to do. My revisiting with Elizabeth did the trick and she redoubled her efforts and generated the feedback we needed.
After that everything went like a dream. From the data we obtained we isolated her core belief (I'm a failure) and the catastrophic outcomes she feared (being thought stupid or lazy) made her very reluctant to venture an opinion, ask for help or say no when she was working on a project. We set about finding opportunities to experiment with doing all of these things to test if colleagues really did think she was stupid or lazy.
Over a period of a month, with 10 minute weekly check-ins, she flipped from being shy and retiring to someone who was able to systematically check out whether her fears were grounded or not. She came to the conclusion that if she asked for help, people didn't mind, if she said she didn't 't think she could fit some extra work in, they accepted it and if she said what she thought, no one concluded she was stupid. Her changed assessment of what was now possible meant she could relax and she quickly realised that it wasn't necessary to work so late because she found that without all of the distracting worries about failing, she could work more efficiently.
The rotten vegetable
And this is where the rotten vegetables come in! I always have a shared evaluation of the work I do with clients and when I asked her at the review how things had changed she told me her husband commented that whereas previously, by the end of the week there were always rotten vegetables in the fridge because she was never there to eat them, now there were none! The rotten vegetable test was the clincher!