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If the word “communication” conjures up visions of a telephone ringing, a BlackBerry buzzing or the intercom beeping, it is certainly time to widen your view of interacting with the world. High among the skills crucial to an associate’s success is the ability to communicate. It permeates every aspect of an attorney’s workday. While the most obvious forms of communication involve the written and spoken word, just as critical are the behavioral characteristics people evaluate in order to determine an associate’s potential for success. The term “situational intelligence” might best describe this range of skills and abilities. Success is often determined not only by the research projects and analytic work that you are responsible for but also by the interaction you have with others in the office and outside — including clients. Associate evaluations often include a substantial segment on “fit” or the ability to work as part of a team. The skills being evaluated in this context are directly related to your ability to both communicate and interact well with others. Associates judged good communicators within the work environment are highly effective at collaboration while maintaining their ability to work independently. If you were to describe the most successful associates at the firm, they would be the ones who accurately project and then meet deadlines, have a clear understanding of their work requirements and are considered highly dependable. They receive repeat work from more senior partners and are frequently selected for the most interesting and challenging assignments. How do they do it? From the outside, it often appears effortless. They are perceived as potential leaders of the firm — seeming to naturally provide direction both in organizing an assignment and then in creating the team necessary to bring it to a timely and successful conclusion. Leadership and the ability to clearly communicate the goals and expectations for each member of the “team” make the difference. If the behavioral aspects of their work were to be evaluated, these future leaders would be found to have a highly developed ability to discern and act upon indirect signals and messages including: 1. Be alert and aware of surroundings. When accepting a new assignment, an effective communicator knows how to ask appropriate questions that will save time — both the assigning partner’s and other members of the team. This ability is learned — one assignment at a time. It means being organized and attentive from the first word spoken. One of the most important signs is recognizing when a meeting is concluded. If you are not aware of the subtle clues — the quick look at a watch, a glance at the telephone, outside interruptions, or the sudden avoidance of eye contact — you’ve missed the clear signals that the meeting is over. If you’re so busy concentrating on “getting the assignment” correct, the opportunity to learn about the work style of the assigning partner is not acknowledged. As associate should also be aware of the external conditions that impact the work assignment. If the partner travels a great deal or is in the midst of more than one “hot” case, it might be best to schedule appointments at mutually convenient times so that the work can be reviewed as needed. 2. Appearance counts. Take a look around you at the most highly regarded associates and partners. The have a look of “success” which is based upon their demeanor, behavior, and the clothes they wear and how they impress others — especially those outside the firm. Neatness counts; you don’t have to invest in custom-made clothes in order to appear well dressed (remember those student loans), but you do have to consider how your clothes fit you. Likewise, your daily hygiene is a vital courtesy and is expected of all those working with others. It is not difficult for co-workers to conclude from an unkempt appearance that you do not care about your work any more than you care about how you look to others. 3. Courtesy is important. Some of the most important aspects of team building are valuing and acknowledging the contribution of every member of the team. If you are known to treat some people with greater respect than others, your group’s work product will suffer and the investment of everyone assigned to the project will not, in the end, assist you in producing your best work. Many an error is caught and corrected by others on the team who assist with the intellectual and physical production of the project. Learning how to accept both constructive criticism and assistance from everyone remains an important part of team building and is antithetical to the grandstander or the person who has to be out front at all times. Your performance will be recognized through the desire of people who have worked with you in the past asking to be part of your next project. 4. Respect hierarchy. Firms are built on a pyramid structure. The expectation is that you will work within that framework and understand your position in the organization. It makes no sense to alienate a senior member of the partnership just to prove a point to others in your “class.” In the end you are the one who will be seeking another job, not the partner whom you inappropriately corrected in front of a client or another partner. There are more sensitive ways to make a point than an ill-timed interruption. The most successful associates learn diplomacy and tact. They also learn how to lead a group without overpowering it and by involving other people, as needed, to strengthen the group. 5. Confidentiality matters. The car service on the way to a meeting might seem like a good place to discuss the latest information relative to the client matter with the partner in charge. Be assured, however, that the “invisible” driver is an unintentional and often unwilling party to your conversation. Confidential and ethical obligations to a client should be paramount in considering where, when and with whom you discuss business. You can never be too careful about what you say and where you say it. Attorneys discuss business, notoriously, in elevators, stairwells, lobbies, and especially restaurants. Being overheard by someone who should not be privy to a conversation has compromised many a deal. Keep your cell phone conversations short and to the point, hold your private conversations in a private place, don’t take work home without permission and be aware of who is around you as you discuss anything work-related. 6. Earn trust in working with clients. As you move up in the firm, you will have more direct contact with clients. It is natural to begin to think of their work as your work and to feel ownership of the matter or project. This is the best time to remember your place in the hierarchy. Make sure the assigning partner is aware of what you are doing in terms of the clients contacting you, the client’s responses and expectations and the status of the project’s timeline. Avoid being too far “out front” in terms of your relations with the clients. Diplomacy and circumspection are worth the time and effort it takes to involve those above you. You will be seen as dependable and discrete and will, in fact, be trusted with more work at a higher level of client interaction. 7. Be reliable. Your work must be on time, of excellent quality and within the parameters of the original assignment. Knowing when to go back to the assigning partner for clarification can save time and money. It can also build trust and respect. Understanding how things work with specific partners and their distinctive expectations are important aspects of working with the many individuals at the firm. This aspect of your “fit” will be recognized and appreciated. 8. Use judgment. Utilizing the firm’s e-mail account to send personal and sometimes inappropriate messages has ended the career of more than one associate. That e-mail joke which you sent to a few people using the “blind copy” feature of your office’s email system can come back to haunt you. It takes only one “blind copy” recipient to add an inappropriate comment and hit the “respond to all” button and that inside joke is suddenly not so funny. Office equipment and software that is used to access computerized shopping or to play games is seen by many as the misuse of an important firm resource. Partners may appear to be uncaring of a quick game of solitaire or an online purchase, but it is noticed and often remembered when billings are reviewed and evaluations filled out. Technology is not a one-sided blessing. Finally, as important as any other aspect of communication is the attitude that you bring to each job assignment. Your work still must be on time, of excellent quality and within the parameters of the original assignment. No matter how repetitive or “mind-numbing” the request, remember that nothing is beneath you when you are part of a team. You are still, and always, learning. If you are asked to do something, do it with enthusiasm and good humor. Well-developed and effective communication skills are what enable you to motivate others about an idea or project. It is then relatively easy to develop the procedures and “orchestration” necessary to reach your goal. All successful leaders possess the ability to communicate effectively and thereby inspire others to want to work with and for them. Ellen Wayne, is dean of Career Services at Columbia Law School. Stephen L. Buchman, career counselor at the law school, assisted in preparing the article.

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