As competition for legal business intensifies, marketing and public relations have risen to the top of the practice agenda. But in my experience, lawyers – in common with other professions – are poor at selling their services and getting their message across to the outside world.
Blame for the profession's communication problem can be laid at a number of doors. The current reliance on information technology and a lack of emphasis on spoken communication in professional training have created a generation who mumble, speak too quickly and lack confidence.
But the legal profession has an added problem. The very skills that make a good solicitor – a comprehensive grasp of the subject and attention to fine detail – make for a poor communicator. Giving a presentation, whether at a new business beauty parade, an international conference or a partners' meeting, calls for nothing less than a performance.
Sadly, most people in the legal profession are so preoccupied with accuracy, dignity and integrity, that they come across with about as much charisma as a sack of potatoes.
There is no doubt about it, lawyers are experts at boring audiences. They stick to carefully prepared scripts, cram in as many facts as possible and deliver the text in a dreary monotone. Their body language is usually wrong too. The typical presenter stands stock still, hands glued to the lectern, eyes down with no hint of a smile.
The trouble with this approach is that the message the individual is trying to get across is immediately devalued, because the packaging is not right.
I firmly believe that business is being lost and important client relationships being put in jeopardy because legal professionals do not know how to sell themselves or build rapport with colleagues and clients.
One scenario is the client meeting, where a usually poker-faced solicitor takes detailed notes and, deep in concentration, rarely looks up or responds except to ask questions. The client feels interrogated, becomes defensive and is reluctant to paint the full picture.
Valuable marketing opportunities are also being missed, because when lawyers get up on the conference platform they concentrate on conveying expertise and forget that they also need to come across as approachable to prospective clients.
I am not suggesting solicitors should start jumping out of cakes at the start of new business presentations. But they need to loosen up, lose their self-consciousness and let their personalities shine through.
Practices should take a look at their recruitment strategy and training programmes and make sure interpersonal skills are given equal weight with academic achievement.
Legal professionals rising through the ranks should put their performance under the microscope and make sure a lack of communication skills does not stifle a promising career.
Good presenters are made, not born. Anyone can learn the techniques of effective spoken communication and, in my experience, when it comes to highly talented legal people, a little presentation training goes a long way.