Charm offensive

Lawyers often do not have the time or skills to deal with relationships and charm is often sidelined by intellect. Ben Stones warns that soft skills training is vital

Managing partners from the UK’s top 100 law firms often talk about the quality of their people being fundamental to the growth and profitability of their firms, but while there is significant investment in legal skills and know-how, firms do not invest in soft skills training or business relationship skills to the same extent as, say, leading accountancy firms and business consultancies. Generally, law firms do not place soft skills development as a core strategic driver. Why is this?

To understand this question it is vital to look at the type of people working in law firms and at the business case for developing lawyers’ ability to more effectively deal with the non-technical skills of getting the best out of their teams and generating work from existing and new clients.

Many partners say that they studied law to be a lawyer, not a manager or a salesperson. When they reach the status of partner, their roles become far more diverse and the skills they need to successfully run and lead a partnership actually counter the skills
they developed through qualifying. This culminates in the role of managing partner.

The managing partner role in any partnership is difficult, as there is constant pressure to make fellow partners account for their actions. It must be shattering trying to win arguments with partners.
Litigators, among others, are used to dealing with conflict. In addition, the most technical lawyers often prefer dealing with the intricacies of the law rather than dealing in people issues. Managing partners have to persuade and influence their fellow partners on the strength of their argument, which is often a flawed approach
that can end in damaged relationships. Consequently, many lawyers could benefit from relationship training.

Legal academic training has an intellectual rigour that, while producing excellent lawyers, can lead to clients perceiving some lawyers to be arrogant or indifferent. Throughout industry, technical experts’ careers are forged from giving advice and being right; however, telling people that “you are right and they are wrong”,
while winning the argument, generally undermines the relationship. This applies particularly to winning new work.

Business development is the training hot topic for law firms.
Widely-read publication of law firms’ financials such as The Lawyer 100 fuel lawyers’ competitive natures, and create a focus within firms for the need to maximise profits per partner (PPP). Although effective financial management can have an impact on this, generally, the initiatives that are implemented are related to increasing the top line through better business development skills and processes. Most lawyers do not see themselves as natural rainmakers and are therefore openminded towards training in the area of financials. This, however, is where soft skills training breaks down.

First, the chargeable time component of driving up PPP means that, although partners want to become better at developing business, they do not have any time to spend in training. Their approach is “give me the check list and I’ll do it”. Business development is about knowing what to do and how to do it. Many lawyers are happy to be told what to do, but are not prepared to spend the time being coached on their personal skills and style in order to get the best out of their business development opportunities. For example, they know they need to raise their profile, so they produce articles and speak at seminars. They do not, however, invest the time to develop the strong networking and relationship skills that turn new contacts into instructions.

Good rainmakers are thought to be born, not bred. The military trains its people so that in times of conflict they fall back on their training and not on their natural personality. Accountancy firm Mazars has also realised that business development skills for highly intelligent, technically trained people can be taught. The firm is working on having a consistent approach and the skills and techniques to fully help their clients get the best from what it can offer.

The second problem is that the general experiences of lawyers attending relationship skills training have left them cynical. Most training consultants find it difficult to deal with such intellectually sharp people as lawyers, who see training as something that is taking them away from what they really ought to be doing. Lawyers pick holes in training techniques, and concepts that do not stand up to their scrutiny are dismissed as irrelevant. The training industry generally does not attract people that have both the commercial experience and the learning and development skills to cope.

The most successful programmes are those where lawyers learn from other industries, yet most lawyers just want to know what other lawyers are doing. The fact that Slaughter and May has a policy of not using external consultants reinforces the perceived problem of using such training providers. It is no surprise, therefore, that many managing partners do not put partner training in business relationships as a key strategy. Unfortunately, this has a knock-on effect in that it creates training managers in law firms who are paranoid about who they put in front of their partners in case they waste their precious chargeable time. They create elaborate processes to deliver to a demand that cannot be supplied by most training providers. And unfortunately, internal HR people are often not strong enough to stand up to their partners or make meaningful recommendations. Countless hours can be lost in trying to source a Sunday team-building event that never happens.

However, there are some successes, and coaching is being embraced by a few firms. There are some reasonably successful management training programmes for post-qualified lawyers and some firms are bringing in business development directors or sales directors. Firms such as Allen & Overy and Berwin Leighton Paisner have talented individuals who both understand business development and can influence the partnership. Clearly, those firms in the top 100 that have not gone down this route are still successful, but there is always room for improvement.

Ben Stones is a director at HR consultancy Optima