Would you ever practice law without adequate training? Of course not. Would you advise a client without ensuring that your knowledge is up-to-date? Don’t be ridiculous! Would you conduct litigation without understanding how the system works? Never!!
Everyone knows that the practice of law requires rigorous training: a law degree or conversion course, law school or bar school, articles or pupillage. Everyone knows that in the top firms and chambers, it is only those with the best marks that make the cut.
Yes, without a doubt, to be a lawyer you have to be well qualified.The profession is fiercely competitive and only the best thrive.
But what makes the best the best? It is not the degree, the law school or the firm or chambers they trained in. Just as a prestigious medical school does not guarantee a good bedside manner, excellent training in the law does not guarantee that you will be an effective, in-demand lawyer.
You see, what makes the best are the essential skills that every lawyer needs, but few are ever taught. What are they? Four core skills are effective communication; creativity; self-care; and the ability to think systemically.
Effective communication is the bed-rock of a good lawyering. It includes the ability to actively listen, understand and empathise with another; to listen without judgement or criticism; and to communicate appropriately in return. It includes the skill of understanding another’s thought process, which may not be the same as ours, and to recognise the different channels of communication, such as the visual, auditory and kinesthetic. It includes understanding the need for rapport and how to build it.
By developing these skills we can callibrate our communication style appropriately to the context, increasing our understanding, our ability to be understood, and our effectiveness. When these skills are held collectively within a team, all members of the team can be heard and valued, the collective resource grows, and the team will flourish.
Creativity is the life-blood of effective lawyering because solving problems is a creative process. Creativity requires whole-brain thinking, a trust in the intangible and the mysterious, the ability to take risks. It is reached by a detachment from a particular outcome, a willingness to be playful, and the capacity to explore with curiosity and an open mind.
The creative self is a powerful and resourceful ally. It can achieve solutions that defy logic and reason. When creativity is part of a team’s culture, the inherently generative nature of relationships drives outcomes far beyond the capability of any one member of that team.
Self-care is self-explanatory. We cannot perform well unless we are well. We cannot genuinely meet the needs of others unless we are prepared to meet our own needs. We cannot sustain our work roles in the face of this demanding profession, unless we find ways of sustaining our minds, bodies and spirits.
A team that values self-care supports the safety and belonging of its members. It inspires their commitment, loyalty and trust. It endures.
Systemic thinking is the game changer. As lawyers we recognise the power and influence of the legal system – its laws, customs, procedures and values – but we rarely look beyond our own back yards, nor do we inspect our own land too closely. There is a vast web of relationships beyond the fence, and an array of nested systems exist within our own realm. These systems influence our patterns of behaviour at every level.
Systemic blindness is a fault line in the profession. Hence under-billing team members are seen as a ‘problem’, rather than as a voice of the system alerting its members that something needs to be addressed: perhaps greater resource is needed, a strategy needs changing, or the tasks within the team have not been defined or delegated appropriately.
Hence, many lawyers will seek to resolve conflict by bringing nothing more than their own individual patterns of behaviour learned from childhood for this purpose, whether or not the particular pattern is best suited to the needs of the client, the team or the firm. And hence the divorce courts spend little time understanding the roles and values within the family system that must be honoured if the family is to thrive beyond the break up of a marriage.
When we understand the systems we operate in, when we think systemically, we see what is hidden from the non-systemic view. We gain insights into the real drivers of behaviour. We are empowered to be present, act purposefully and with intelligent foresight. Teams that think and act with the system in mind are true teams. They are the helmsmen and crew of their own destiny.
The paradox of the legal profession
And so here is a great paradox of the legal profession. It recognises the need for training, but does not train its members in the skills it most values. It recognises the need to be up-to-date, but its culture has outmoded values. And it knows the power of systems, but fixes its stare in the comfortably narrow compass of its own realm.
Perhaps it is time to do things differently?
Zita Tulyahikayo and James Pereira QC are founders of The Libra Partnership which provides coaching and training to the legal profession. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org