Young Lawyers Learn Strategic Communication Skills

                                     By WLALA Members Shelby King and Julia Matzenger

June 2019

The Young Lawyers Section hosted its annual spring event on May 15 titled “Finding Your Voice: Effective Communication Strategies for Young Lawyers” at K&L Gates’ Century City office. After a networking reception, four distinguished panelists and a moderator provided practical tips for communicating with the various audiences with whom young lawyers work.

The event began with an introduction by Elaine Chang, Roxana Guidero, and Nicole Ramirez, co-chairs of the Young Lawyers Section. Diane Cafferata, Partner at Quinn Emanuel, Ann C. Kim, Partner at Hogan Lovells, Nyanza Shaw, Principal at Shaw Esquire, and Christina N. Goodrich, Partner at K&L Gates, were panelists. The event was moderated by Stacy Horth-Neubert, Counsel at Sidley Austin and past WLALA president. The panelists and moderator then shared their experiences and advice with attendees as follows:

1. Make yourself heard.

Ms. Horth-Neubert initiated the panel with a tip for ensuring you are heard and that your ideas are not reclaimed by someone else. She suggested using the phrase “Yes exactly, that is what I was just saying” when confronted with a colleague who speaks over you with a similar idea. Ms. Horth-Neubert referred to this as “self-amplification.” Ms. Shaw also noted that it is helpful to reiterate or clarify your point, if you feel like you have not been heard. The panelists agreed and added that the key is also to be prepared. Ms. Goodrich acknowledged that public speaking can be scary, but practice and preparation can help to increase your comfort level. Ms. Kim noted that being the most prepared person in the room can also help you be more confident.

2. Use effective communication to set personal boundaries. 

When confronted with a task, Ms. Shaw suggested that young attorneys assess the individual needs of the people with whom they are communicating. Ms. Goodrich acknowledged the need to be responsive to supervisors, clients, and others, but she also emphasized the need to be healthy in order to be a great attorney. She and Ms. Cafferata explained that taking care of your body and mind is just as important as taking care of your work. Learning to balance your personal life and work life is key to happiness and success. Ms. Kim spoke about managing expectations by communicating regularly with supervisors. As just one example, in the event that you need to be out of the office, notify your supervisor early (by email), ask how you can help in the meantime, and remind your supervisor of your upcoming absence..

3. Be respectful of the hierarchy when communicating your ideas.

Ms. Cafferata emphasized that experience is everything in law practice, so you must be respectful to those with more experience. Ms. Kim suggested a helpful phrase when correcting a supervisor: “I’m sure you already thought of this, but what about X.” This will help to prevent your supervisor from becoming defensive. Ms. Shaw recommended listening carefully and observing how people work together in your office. She also recommended finding an ally who can help you navigate your environment. Ms. Goodrich echoed this tip when she gave the example of how she conferred with former clerks and externs to learn more about the preferences of the  judge in order to make the most of her clerkship experience.. Ms. Horth-Neubert also noted the importance of strategic silence in high pressure situations, balanced against the need to express your ideas in a calm and respectful way. Knowing when to speak up and when to stay silent was a skill the panelists agreed comes with time and experience.

4. Always view criticism as constructive.

Ms. Kim noted the importance of developing a thick skin and considering all criticism as constructive. When faced with criticism, she suggested asking what you could do differently and then using that feedback to improve your work product. Ms. Shaw agreed, suggesting that young lawyers ask “why?” in order to better understand the process. She warned young lawyers to not always take criticism too seriously at times when it is more a stylistic issue rather than a substantive issue.

5. Claim your expertise and hard work.

Both Ms. Cafferata and Ms. Shaw provided a valuable tip for when a young lawyer is up against a highly experienced lawyer: claim your expertise. The other attorney may have more years of practice under their belt, but you may have worked longer and in more detail on the instant case and have a better understanding of the facts. Ms. Cafferata emphasized the need to be prepared and gave the example of reading all the relevant cases before an oral argument. Issues often come down to the details, and knowing the ins and outs of the seminal cases on your issue can be the difference between a favorable or unfavorable outcome.

6. Advocate for your client but be honest and respectful with the Court. 

The panelists addressed a situation where you may not know an answer posed by a judge while in court. Ms. Kim suggested being honest about not having an answer and asking the court for a reasonable amount of time to find the answer or prepare the issue. She also addressed the awkward situation of correcting a judge if the judge misstates a fact or issue by saying, “Will the court address the fact that X” to clarify the record. Addressing a judge that way will avoid the risk of offending the judge. Ms. Shaw emphasized the importance of advocating for your client. She pointed out that, although you may be working on many cases, this is likely your client’s only case and a large part of their life. 

7. Prime clients ahead of time for bad news.

Ms. Horth-Neubert asked the panelists how they break bad news to their clients. Ms. Goodrich said her preparation starts before the bad news is received. She primes her clients by walking through what could potentially happen. She also emphasized the need to occasionally “wait it out” and give the client time to cool off before discussing bad news. Ms. Shaw spoke about the importance of not making promises you cannot keep. She explained that giving a range of potential outcomes, even if they are upsetting to the client, is more effective and fair than raising expectations.

8. Prepare for meetings by researching your role.

Ms. Goodrich said that it is helpful to research your role in a meeting by asking questions beforehand and understanding your supervisor’s expectations of you in the meeting. You could also clarify who is taking the lead in the meeting to avoid stepping on someone’s toes. Ms. Horth-Neubert agreed, adding that it is important to know your office’s goals for the meeting ahead of time. Ms. Shaw spoke about amplifying and mirroring the ideas of other young attorneys at meetings, when appropriate, to confirm that you agree with them. Supporting other young attorneys is a valuable and important part of building your network of support.

9. Your word and reputation is everything.

Ms. Cafferata emphasized that being a lawyer is a superpower and that you must learn how to use it. Within the legal profession, your word is everything. Thus, Ms. Cafferata stressed that you should never fib because that will damage your reputation. Ms. Horth-Neubert suggested saying something neutral such as “I hear you,” when you don’t want to express an affirmative or negative opinion, but it is important for the speaker to know they are being heard. Using your words respectfully and strategically can be invaluable when dealing with opposing parties, supervisors, and clients.

10. Respect your support staff.

Ms. Cafferata asked attendees to think about the skillset of support staff and to be extremely gracious. Ms. Horth-Neubert suggested explicitly asking staff what role they play in the office when you are new. Ms. Kim underlined the need to be realistic about deadlines when delegating to your support staff. Only label work as “urgent” only when it is a short deadline, otherwise it will lose its effect. Ms. Shaw also emphasized the need to be respectful to support staff’s time. For urgent or complicated projects, Ms. Horth-Neubert suggested asking support staff whether they are too busy and if you need to find someone else to complete the project. 

Afterwards, the panelists took questions from the audience. They addressed salary negotiations, mentoring in small firms, embracing your unique personality in the workplace, and more. The event provided young lawyer attendees with practical tips for professionally handling tricky situations. 

Thank you again to our sponsors: Capstone Partners Financial & Insurance Services, LLC, Driven, Inc., and K&L Gates LLP.

To view the event photos, please CLICK HERE.