What’s the secret to success?

When I was a college student, I spent several school vacations temping as an administrative assistant at a savings bank in mid-town Manhattan. The bank offices had a little lunch room, hidden away behind a nondescript door down a long corridor. One day, a few of us were sitting around the lunch table chomping on the latest delicacy from the local Burger Heaven. It was a collegial bunch: a couple of administrative assistants, two real estate appraisers, someone from the mortgage department, our public relations guy and Larry, the bank’s comptroller, a highly accomplished, successful and personable banker. One of the appraisers raised a question: “What does it take to be successful?”

Somebody said, “You have to work really hard!” One of our skeptics retorted, “No, you just have to be politically savvy. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you don’t know the right people!” The fellow from the mortgage department suggested that you need to get several college and graduate degrees. At that point, Larry put his sandwich down and said, “You know what? All you really need to be successful in life is to be able to do some math, write well and be able to talk with people. It doesn’t really matter how many degrees you get or how political you are.” We all stopped talking and gave some thought to his statement. It seemed so simple, yet the more we thought about it, the more profound it became.

I considered his advice in relation to myself: I was 21 years old, studying engineering, so I felt that I had the “math” part covered. I’d always done well in my Literature courses, so I checked off the “writing” part. But I wasn’t quite sure what Larry meant by “being able to talk with people”, how that was different from being “political” and why that would be more important than earning educational degrees. Moreover, I was a quiet, shy person—it was hard for me to find my way to reach out to others and wasn’t quite sure how to do this. Couldn’t I just work hard and do good work?

I asked him to tell us his story. He had been the first person in his family to go to college and worked his way through his accounting program. All along, he had sought advice from mentors. His math skills provided his technical expertise. He established his credibility by being able to express himself in concise and accurate reports and by reaching out to others—talking with people. He said that every successful person he had encountered in his 25-year career possessed these three skills.

The most critical skill, and the most challenging, Larry said, was the “people” part. Finding a mentor whom you could ask for advice and who could honestly critique your style and work was vital. Creating and maintaining relationships with other people would lead not just to opportunities, but to a fulfilling and enjoyable career. “Talking with people” was completely different from being political, which he saw as akin to “using” people. When I mentioned to him that I tend to be a shy person, he advised me to be on the lookout for someone who was impressed with my work—that person could be my mentor. He also suggested that I find my own way to connect with and speak to other people and it would never let me down. Being open to others and practicing different ways of reaching out to them, would help me find my unique way of bonding with the people in my life.

Indeed, following Larry’s advice was how I found my first job as a patent attorney. During my time at the bank, I had the opportunity to chat with both the administrative staff and the officers of the bank. The bank’s Vice Chairman had recently retired as Associate General Counsel at the Law Department of the large chemical company across the street from the bank. He, his secretary and I had had some enjoyable conversations while I worked at the bank. During my job search in my third year in law school, I visited my friends at the bank and stopped by his office to say hello. During the course of our conversation, he recommended that I contact the Chief Patent Counsel of his former employer at his suggestion. This led to my first legal job after law school, for which I have been ever grateful.

I’ve always remembered Larry’s advice: it was really the first time I had considered what it meant to find my own voice and use it to create relationships and connections with others, both professionally and personally. If you’re interested in exploring this skill, please contact me!

How Do I Give Bad News to a Quick-Tempered Client?

When clients come to an attorney with a legal issue, it’s generally at a point after they have already tried to solve the problem in other ways. Depending upon their personalities, they may be very short on patience. This can be daunting when a lawyer needs to give advice, particularly when the advice contains some bad news for the clients or their businesses. So how do we steel ourselves to give clients bad news, knowing that our hair will probably be blown back when we do that?

When I started working at a large healthcare corporation, I was only a few years out of law school and had worked long enough at a law firm to have acquired a deflated sense of self-worth. One of my first clients at the new job was, to put it bluntly, “difficult”: he was extremely demanding, he raised his voice, he tried mightily to avoid attorney advice. He terrified me.

Increasingly, I felt that he was not interested in hearing what I had to say, which set up a vicious cycle: I went into every successive meeting at a lower level of self-confidence and a higher level of anxiety. The more fearful and anxious I became, the less able I was to give him advice in a straightforward manner. The lack of self-assurance in my abilities came across in my voice and presentation to him. This further aggravated him and led him to vent his frustration at me until, at one meeting, he screamed at me. I had to leave the meeting briefly to compose myself. Needless to say, this was not a productive relationship. He ultimately apologized for his behavior, which led to a better personal interaction, but it was some time before I realized how I could have broken this cycle and made myself heard in a constructive way.

Experience and self-reflection taught me a few things along the way. The next time I ran into this kind of behavior on my client’s part, I asked myself, “What is going on with this client? Why is he behaving this way?” I put myself in the client’s position: he was working in a very competitive field. His business, which had been extraordinarily innovative for many years, had suddenly run into steep competition and was losing market share weekly. In order to come up with a viable product, he would have to navigate a virtual maze of patents. He was frustrated that this was the case and was venting his frustration on me, the patent attorney, bearer of bad news. Notwithstanding, I was confident in my analysis, having vetted it with several colleagues and my supervisor. After empathetic reflection, I had an epiphany: I could not take his frustration as a comment on my skills.

Second, I asked myself, “What am I afraid of?” Of course, getting yelled at or treated in a negative fashion is uncomfortable. But it was more irritating than terrifying. I discovered that his treatment of me made me doubt myself. It generated the feeling that my advice and analysis weren’t good enough, that if only I were a “better lawyer”, I could have come up with a way for him to operate in complete freedom despite the existence of these patents. It wasn’t the client who was causing the feelings of fear, it was my own inner voice! No matter how well I had prepared for the meeting, unless I addressed the voice that was telling me I was “not good enough,” I would never be able to give advice in a way that the client could hear me. I changed my focus from the client to myself, which removed the fear I was feeling from the client.

Third, I asked, “Given what the client is going through and presuming that I am prepared to give advice, what’s the best way to convey this advice to the client and solve the issue?” I considered (1) what the client needed to hear to support his or her business, (2) how the client needed to hear that advice and (3) how to help the client understand that we all needed to work as a team to solve the issue.

The client needed to know the situation in order to address it, no matter how difficult it would be to hear. Further, knowing that my sense of confidence in the advice would affect the tone of voice I would use in conveying that advice, I practiced giving the advice out loud to find the right, comfortable tone of voice for me to present it. If I sounded secure, the client would hear that confidence and listen to the advice, even if it was difficult to hear. And, finally, pulling the client into the solution would defuse his or her anger and direct the energy toward unravelling the problem and finding a business answer to the issues involved.

So, how to give tough advice to a tough client? Consider your own part in the equation and how you yourself influence the response you receive. If you’d like to work on this aspect of your practice, please visit my website at www.ProSeLawyerCoach.com and book an appointment. See you there!