While passing through immigration control on my last visit to the United States, I was asked the usual question: “Are you travelling for business or pleasure?” “Business”, I answered, “I’m speaking at a conference.” “What are you speaking about?” queried the immigration officer. “Well”, I answered, frantically trying to condense into a nutshell the content of my next three days’ workshops, “I’m trying to teach lawyers to be less like lawyers and more like real people.”
The immigration officer looked at me quite seriously and then a broad grin spread slowly across his face. “Good luck with that!” he chuckled whole-heartedly, clearly amused at the very suggestion that lawyers could possibly be considered “real people”!
So, why are lawyers so poorly regarded by non-lawyers and what makes us so unrelatable?
The starting point
Cast your mind back to law school. Were you taught to “think like a lawyer”? Was the emphasis on fact, analysis, logic and intellect disconnected from emotional engagement? No legal “bedside manner” required? That was certainly my experience, although I gather change is afoot. I blame Aristotle: “The law is reason free from passion.” Oft quoted, but seldom applied. In the real world, I prefer Cicero’s observation that:
“Men decide far more problems by hate, or love, or lust, or rage, or sorrow, or joy, or hope, or fear, or illusion, or by some other inward emotion, than by reality, or authority, or any legal standard, or judicial precedent, or statute.”
The ability to recognise, understand, regulate and use emotion in ourselves and others distinguishes a good lawyer from a great one. This ability (or emotional intelligence) is critical for all lawyers, but especially for those at the business coalface.
The in-house challenge
In-house lawyers operate within a complex dynamic. They are ancillary to, not the raison-d’être of the business. They are in and for the business but often organisational structure and culture mean they are not considered of the business. They provide legal advice, but may also act as key influencers in business decisions. They are required to perform myriad roles, assume multiple responsibilities and manage multidimensional relationships far evolved from traditional private practice competencies. Value is not measure by time recorded, but by business objectives achieved.
In-house lawyers are required to communicate, collaborate, influence, persuade, diffuse and resolve conflict with a variety of colleagues, customers, suppliers, stakeholders and competitors. All these individuals have different backgrounds, perspectives and knowledge. They come from disparate disciplines and do not “think like lawyers”, but possess and demonstrate wholly different thinking, learning, communication and behavioural styles, and risk tolerances.
Unlike a law firm populated by like-minded and like-trained individuals, in-house environments offer daily challenges requiring in-house lawyers to step outside the comfort zone of the legal mindset and conventional legal training, and relate to real people. Although common sense may assist to a degree, generally, the skills necessary to meet these challenges require deliberate and active upskilling in competencies. The importance of these skills has long been recognised by business schools but remains alien to many law schools.
Impact on performance
Research shows that levels of self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, social awareness, relationship management, adaptability, stress management and general happiness (all key components of emotional intelligence) significantly influence performance and effectiveness. Some claim that emotional intelligence accounts for up to 80% of workplace success. So what does this mean for in-house lawyers?
From “in-house counsel to business partner”
In recent years, much has been written and spoken about the aspirational journey from “in-house counsel to business partner”. Good academics and technical knowledge will only get you so far in this endeavour, and those fundamental skills will require some significant enhancement. To succeed in-house, lawyers must build confidence and trust through human connections, and demonstrate the “soft” skills valued in business. These include:
- Team-work and collaboration.
- Service orientation.
- People skills.
In-house lawyers must stop simply relying on their intellectual capabilities and tap into the power of emotional intelligence.
What is emotional intelligence or EQ?
Emotional intelligence (EQ) is defined as a set of skills and abilities that enable us to use the power of emotion (our own and others) as a source of energy, information, motivation and connection to inform one’s thinking, decision-making and actions. There are several different EQ models, but each contains similar facets.
EQ collectively establishes how well we:
- Know, motivate and manage ourselves (intrapersonal skills or personal competencies).
- Perceive, understand and interact with others (interpersonal skills or social competencies).
- Build bonds and sustain relationships (relationship management).
- Problem-solve, react and adapt to new challenges (adaptability).
- Manage stress and remain positive (stress management and general mood).
Key components include:
- Impulse control.
- Social responsibility.
- Developing others.
- Reality testing.
- Conflict management.
In an in-house legal context, it encompasses the ability to tune in to ourselves and others, read and influence situations, and take, or motivate others to take, appropriate action to achieve desired outcomes. Simply put, it means mastering the essential arts of people, politics and persuasion.
Tapping your emotional intelligence
Take a minute to examine the ways in which you frequently feel, think and act, and how you are perceived by and interact with others within your organisation. Could you do better? The answer is invariably “yes”. Research also shows that lawyers have lower emotional intelligence than the general population, perhaps because, historically, it has been undervalued and largely ignored in favour of established “hard” legal skills. The good news for those who want to enhance these emotional intelligence abilities is that EQ, like IQ, can be measured. However, unlike IQ, which tends to remain constant throughout adulthood, EQ is not fixed and can be learned and developed through training, coaching and practice.
Be brave! Learn more about emotional intelligence and incorporate its core competencies into your skill set. It is not a cure-all or a guarantee of stardom, but it may just make the practice of law more satisfying and enhance your personal performance, team effectiveness and organisational impact.