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It’s Still Who You Know

This topic has been on my “to write about” list since I read an article in the Wall Street Journal almost a year ago.  “Why Gen-Y Johnny Can’t Read Nonverbal Cues”, By Mark Bauerlein.  It got lost in the shuffle somehow and I looked at it again today to send to a friend.  Here is the article:

Mr. Bauerlein writes about how people who are growing up with cell phones, iPods, email, etc…are losing their ability to read subtle, culturally based, non-verbal communication.  He calls it the “silent language”.  This is an unnerving thought!  It means that as technology becomes more and more the “rule”, people using the technology are losing their ability to notice emotions in other people.

It’s a big deal on any day but becomes a serious problem in situations in which verbal or written communication is not an option – like during a business meeting or when the person you are discussing has just entered the room unseen…

In fact, nonverbal communication represents 50%-80% of our overall communication.  Losing even half of that cuts off a substantial amount of valuable information about the people around you.

One of the comments to this article was by Brian Brown:

“A young man’s career might suffer because he can’t recognize humor without a smiley face, or because his unconscious shifting and sighing irritates his boss, or because he communicates disinterest by constantly turning back to his iPhone. Or as Bauerlein suggests, diplomat who knows Japanese words but not Japanese linguistic or nonverbal customs is likely to make some major blunders.”

I agree.

“Disadvantaged” – the Digital People

Unless the “Digital People” or “Digitals” recognize their disadvantage and learn to recognize emotional cues, the wool really is over their eyes.  In addition, a large part of this population probably won’t be able to control their own outward show of emotion very well.  That puts them at a serious disadvantage in communications or negotiations with trained communicators.

Basically, their inability to accurately read people’s emotions sets them up to be taken advantage of “six ways to Sunday”.  In other words, they are an easy mark for unethical negotiators…they won’t stand a chance!

When the chips are on the table, they won’t be able to “read” the other players and they’ll lose their chips!  It’s like emotional blindness.

So what?  Why should you care?

3 Ways This Can Make Or Break Your Practice:

Your Network,

Big Deals,

Exposure to Liability

Your Network

When you hire someone, they represent YOU, your reputation, and your business. When you hire a new associate, paralegal, assistant, etc…you are inviting them into your network.  From inside your network they can either build bridges or tear them down.  Protect your network by making sure that you have good communicators on your team!

What is a network anyway?

It’s your support system.  It’s your trusted circle and then some.  They are friends, college roommates, colleagues, and professional acquaintances.  They know you.  You know them.  The relationship is built on familiarity and mutual respect.  You usually like one another and share common interests.

The people in your network likely have at least one thing in common: they have either met you in person or were referred by a friend.

Real networks are built to last.  The best and strongest networks are forged around dinner tables, on the golf course, and at other social events.  They are created not as a tool, but upon genuine common interest.  The good ones are like live oak trees – perennials that get stronger and better with time.

No matter what size your practice is, strong networks are necessary to grow your business.  If you want your practice to succeed, you and your associates must actively network – in person.  In order to be an effective communicator, you must know how to do it well.

The “Official Preppy Handbook” has a funny and brilliantly accurate flow chart that shows how the “old boy networks” work.  Having seen the old boys in action, I can tell you it’s spot on.

For example, one of my written recommendations for law school came via a friend of my mother.  He secured a recommendation for me from his old friend Jimmy Fitzmorris, who is a prominent businessman in Louisiana.   There was one condition: Jimmy wanted to meet me in person.

I was nervous on the day I drove to New Orleans to meet him.  His office was massive and intimidating – he called it his “war room”.  His desk was massive.  The walls were totally covered with framed awards, letters of thanks, keys to cities, and lots and lots of photos of Jimmy… shaking hands with the president, tarpon fishing with the governor, having a drink with Wayne Newton at a Mardi Gras ball.  THAT’S how you network!!

We had a brief meeting.  He was a truly gracious and wonderful communicator.  He easily to put me at ease and we had a good conversation.  He wrote me a glowing recommendation that helped me get into a highly competitive law school.

Ideally, new associates will bring their own network with them and will continue to expand their sphere of influence while working for you – helping you grow your practice to the benefit of all involved.  Look for new hires that can demonstrate that they already have a solid (even if small) network.

Big Deals and Big Cases

This is obvious – the bigger the deal or case, the less room for error and the more important it becomes to have accurate communication.

Big deals always involve face-to-face communication and extensive negotiation.  Unless you plan on doing it all by yourself, you will a least need competent sidekick to help you bring the deal to fruition.  Big cases can involve a multitude of complex interactions that must be not only handled well, but must also be accurately communicated to the principal attorneys.

In 1998 I witnessed an extreme lesson in communication.  My father was a maritime personal injury plaintiff’s attorney trying a Jones Act case in federal court.   The judge prohibited the inclusion of a specific photograph as evidence of an injury because he thought it was too gruesome to show to the jury.  One of the Dad’s paralegals misunderstood the instructions and included the photograph with the materials submitted as evidence.

Dad’s client was awarded 3.3 million dollars for his injury.  There was much rejoicing…until the defense counsel discovered that the photo had been submitted in error…  While Dad managed to get a retrial, he had to try the whole case over again – from the top.  It was an expensive and arduous price to pay for a mis-communication.  To his credit, he managed to win an even larger award without the inflammatory photo.

Great communication skills are an asset BUT poor communication skills expose you to liability!

The bottom line is your bottom line.  Your success rests largely on your reputation.  When you hire people you effectively entrust them with your reputation and your business success.  It’s hard to tell how people will act under pressure until you see it firsthand, so take care to screen new hires very carefully.

If you are hiring someone who is exceptionally tech savvy, triple check their social aptitude because they will eventually be dealing with clients and they will certainly be dealing with your support staff.  Can they detect “stuffed” anger?  Can they tell when someone is in “fight or flight”?  Can they think on their feet and get rapport, even in extreme circumstances – like dealing with an irate judge?

Be aware that your new associate is probably not very good at communication and is probably secretly terrified of public speaking.  After all, it is widely understood that 90% of the population would rather die than speak in public…

Poor communication and inability to focus can wreak havoc on trial preparation.  A rude secretary can ruin your practice.  A hotheaded associate, experiencing real stress for the first time, might lose his cool in court and blow it for you (or create an embarrassing mess that you have to clean up)!

People assume that attorneys know how to communicate well.  While some do, it is usually because of life experience.  Attorneys generally don’t learn communication in law school, they learn how to research and argue.  Most law schools do NOT teach students how to calm a panicked client in the middle of the night (I had to do that once!) or deal with an opposing counsel who is using bully tactics…

For best results, everyone in your firm should be able to communicate fluently in all modalities – face-to-face, verbal, nonverbal, text, email, phone, real “snail mail” letters, and whatever else comes into use.  With all of the new technology, the potential for mis-communication has actually gone up.  That means liability risk and the potential for legal malpractice claims has gone up too.

Eliminate The Unknown – Get Trained!

The most efficient way to eliminate the possibility of potentially catastrophic communication mishaps is to be trained and to train your associates and support staff.  Your result will be less office drama, better client relations, fewer mistakes, more business (referrals! A stronger network!), and better deals.

Negotiation Ninja offers a variety of New Associate trainings and will customize any training to best suit your firm’s needs.  Don’t just wait for the bomb to go off, diffuse it!

Call today and build your Negotiation Ninja team!


Nancy T. Hand, JD



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