By Chere B. Estrin
Have you ever participated professionally in a competitive sport? Are you familiar with the approaches in which professionals train for one? If you look deeply, you will see a strong resemblance in principal to sports and the legal professional field. The reality is, if we focus on the actual mechanics of what we do over a period of time, we can see that we receive results through our reflexes.
Throughout our working day, we continually encounter a multitude of seemingly minor circumstances, objections or stop-gaps that require us to respond, perhaps by additional probing questions, perhaps with rebuttals. If these situations are handled properly, we gain additional information or we overcome the objection or stop-gap and proceed to our next step. Does this always happen? No. But to the degree we do respond with maximum effectiveness, we improve our production considerably...with no extra time in the office, on the phone or hammering out lengthy emails to attorneys who don’t want to hear about it anyway.
Consider it. An attorney says she has an assignment for you that has impossible deadlines but you can’t help her. The IT department cannot assist you immediately. Clients say they can’t reach your attorneys but you have no answer for them. You are having trouble meeting billable hours and it’s because the firm doesn’t have enough work. Several times a day we encounter situations where we might respond a bit better. But do we? Maybe. But if, as it has been said, baseball is a game of inches, getting our best results is a game of improving the odds by enhancing your skills in terms of how you respond to the situation.
DEVELOPING NEW REFLEXES
Sharpening your reflexes is a two-step process that can be repeated indefinitely as you see additional areas to improve your performance.
The first, of course, is identifying the areas where sharper reflexes will result in incremental upward career mobility. This could mean increased billable hours, improved and more sophisticated assignments, even a promotion. This does not have to only include obvious areas such as getting the assignment correct from the beginning. Are you glancing at the assignment and not delving in-depth as to what it is about? Are you doing routine and repetitious work and wondering why you are getting bored with your job? Do you ask questions to elicit more specific information rather than making statements? These also are considered reflexes.
WHERE TO FOCUS
Your first step is obviously to narrow your focus. Don't think you can just say "I need to do better" and leave it at that. You must train like a professional athlete. What does that mean?
There is a major difference between how amateurs and professionals train. An amateur just does more of his sport. For example, Kate plays more soccer or tennis or Brian runs more often. By doing so, they may improve slowly, but will never progress past their amateur level. We call this “victims of empty-loading.” It is the same as saying, “I am going to upgrade my career.” So instead of summarizing six depositions a week, you summarize twelve. More of the same with no improvement or upward movement.
A professional determines which specific area he needs to improve, and then spends time focusing on precisely that arena.
To do so, you must find your weak spots which is not always an easy task.
Initially, ask yourself where you could improve. Over the years, chances are you've noticed or been told about certain improvement areas, and have said to yourself "I need to work on that." Have you? Probably. But has the problem been fully corrected? Maybe not.
TAP INTO YOUR MANAGER- A MAJOR RESOURCE
If you have a manager, it's a mistake to think that she can't help you. If you haven't indicated a willingness to improve, she may just be concentrating on new people or those who ask for help. Tell her you're ready to learn more and ask for assistance. Have a plan ready as to how to get the help you need.
If you are the manager, ask your most effective legal professional, HR manager or attorney for some suggestions. He won't think you're "showing weakness" by asking for help; he'll respect you for wanting to improve...and he should.
ANALYZE YOUR CALLS
Professional athletes record and evaluate their performances all the time to improve. You should, too. Consider recording your voice and what goes on in a phone call. Fifteen minutes a day, three days a week, listening to your own calls after hours will get any experienced legal professional realizing where you can improve.
Be aware there are laws in California and other states against recording two-way calls without consent. If you live in one of the states, you may be able to record only your voice.
Alternatively, you can take notes during your conversations. Jot down notes while the conversation is taking place. Not only the answers to your questions. That’s not what you are after. Instead: What specifically did you ask? How did you ask the question?
Notes and Numbers
Have a brightly-colored sheet of paper on your desk (so it doesn't get lost in the stacks). Whenever something happens that you feel you didn't handle particularly well, write it down. Keep doing it. Over the course of a few weeks, a pattern is most likely to emerge. Did your time get written-off again? Do you know why? This technique can track your performance via self-evaluation.
Don't concentrate only on the words that you say. The manner of your response or your reaction is not to be overlooked. It can be changed to equally enhance your production.
HOW TO IMPROVE
Notes on Your Phone
Take a look at your computer. Is there a note on it relating to improved performance? If not, you're missing an easy way to improve. Reflexes are habits. Habits, to change, require ongoing reminders. Put a new Post-it on your computer every week. Don't just leave it there until you have forgotten about it. Change notes regularly or, if it is the same note, change paper colors. Pick a date to change the note: Say, every Monday, the note gets changed.
While brief pieces of "script" are certainly possible, it is more likely that these will reflect your manner of presentation and broad principles. Some examples might be "slow your pace", "ask more probing questions", "listen more carefully" or "reinforce what you heard."
No matter how good an athlete is, she practices. No matter how good a musician is, he practices -- every day. Do you?
Role-playing is our equivalent of practicing, and it will benefit you, the experienced legal professional, just as much as an entry-level. It is also likely to help you identify specific areas in which you need to improve.
Let's take an example. Your role-playing partner, playing the "part" of the attorney or supervisor, is giving you an assignment. In answer to your question, she replies that she just wants the assignment on Thursday and gives you very little information as to how to accomplish the task. Do you reinforce and ask for specifics? "Kim, I understand what you are saying. However, specifically what are you looking for? What resources do you recommend?” Or did you just say "OK" and go on to the next question on your list?
Don't make excuses and don't let your role-playing partner do so. You are creating a habit. And if you make a mistake in role-playing, there's a good chance that you are making it constantly when receiving assignments.
Consider Teaching or Speaking Engagements
Take it from the originators: Aristotle once said that "the truest knowledge of an art is achieved only by teaching it." You don't need to teach this field; you just need to do it. But teaching a subject or giving a talk on it will force you to organize your thoughts, consider the problem and the solution in depth, and formalize your knowledge. It also looks great on your resume.
Maximizing Your Commute
Serious professional-level athletes do not always "eat, sleep and breathe" their sport. But they do come close. So should you.
If you commute to work, you already know that it is not the most exciting or pleasant part of the day. Particularly, if you live in a major metropolitan city and encounter heavy traffic that has gotten incredibly worse over the years. Yet, there are excellent benefits you can achieve during this everyday time that is not going to disappear.
A 30-minute morning commute amounts to a solid ten hours a month of time spent driving to work. A 15-minute commute equals 5 hours a month. The time before you sit down at your desk sets up your attitude for the business day. Sign up for webinars and if you don’t attend the live session, listen in the car.
Is skill improvement the responsibility of managers to deliver to legal professionals? Probably. However, waiting for this event to happen can stall your career. Skill improvement is an individual responsibility and investing in yourself can pay huge dividends.
We always have to quote someone in the know: Andrew Carnegie wrote that a career is made or marred in hours after formal work is done. That’s true for you as well as you commit to improving your legal professional career. And, concentration on your career after hours is a great way to go.
THE LAST WORD
No matter how talented or experienced you are, meaningful career improvement is possible. Accomplishing it will not only give you a sense of upward movement - the hallmark of a successful person - it will make you a better legal professional, promote your journey and get you out of stagnating, career inhibiting situations. It just takes a little effort, change in attitude and a fresh outlook!
Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing; CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute and President of the Organization of Legal Professionals, a non-profit eDiscovery training organization. She is the author of 10 books on the legal career and hundreds of articles; a national seminar speaker; Recipient of the Los Angeles Paralegal Lifetime Achievement Award; an Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist; former legal professional administrator and senior executive in a $5 billion corporation. She has been written up in Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Daily Journal and other publications. Her blog, The Estrin Report, has been around since 2005. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org