There is a difficult transition which all lawyers make at some point or another. It is where you go from being a dormant, mute scribe in meetings to being an active participant.
From there, you transition from being an active participant to being a driving force.
So how should you behave in meetings, and what to do when you’re wanting to participate more?
It’s Not All About Seniority
OK the most obvious circumstance that you’re going to come across is this: you do all the hard yards on a file, you then brief the supervising lawyer 10 minutes before the meeting and they “steal your thunder” by basically voicing everything you just told them. Everyone at the meeting appreciates their insightful comments, except for you as you secretly sit there grinding your teeth as your words get regurgitated by somebody who has no idea what they are talking about.
Sound familiar? It should. It happens to basically everybody. To you in this situation, however, I have this to say:
- First – harden up. You may have done the work but you were given the work and the tools to perform it for a purpose. That purpose was to brief your partner so they could advise the client and participate in the meeting. If you fulfilled that purpose well then you should be pleased, not envious.
- Next – understand that if you are participating in meetings with clients and senior people, then it is a learning opportunity. Yes your job might be to take notes and otherwise stay silent, but use the opportunity to watch the action. See how people relate to each other, how your supervisor fosters trust or leads the meeting – do they do a good job, or not? How do clients respond to the advice given? How is what you communicated to your partner ultimately put forward to the client? I’ll bet that the message you gave to your partner came across in different language and different context.
- Don’t underestimate your senior lawyer. As a supervisor myself I receive information on a daily basis from lawyers who have greater knowledge of the specifics on a file than I. However, that does not mean that I am ignorant of the matters at hand. Often I will know more about the client, the matter and the interplay between the relevant players. You should not assume that I’m not going into a meeting very well prepared. Everyone has a role to play, and I have a lot of practice at playing mine.
The hardest part of gaining seniority is the point at which you are “sort of” senior enough to take a meeting or participate actively, but continue to have the presence of a more senior lawyer. These can get uncomfortable.
As always, it is a matter of knowing the players. If you aren’t sure, speak with the senior lawyer and ask them what they expect your participation to be. Have a frank discussion (if you can) about your desire to have more input into matters. Most lawyers will be respectful of that, and even if an immediate opportunity for such participation does not exist, will try to keep an eye out for you.
Sometimes a senior lawyer will tell you to participate more in a meeting, but in practice will give you no opportunity to do so. Again – you’ve got to speak up (to them). If they have told you to participate more but are always pulling rank in any discussion an taking over, then you might need to let them know. That can be awkward, so it’s a matter of understanding the personalities before broaching such a topic.
It should be obvious, but don’t get into an ego competition with your supervising lawyer in the middle of a client meeting. It’s going to end badly for everyone.
Don’t interrupt. Again – it’s rude, and if a client is present with whom your partner has a relationship, then you need to respect that. Your relationship might exist but is likely less established with the client – the partner probably knows the personalities better than you. If you think they’re doing a bad job, and are confident in your ability to sway things, you might choose to try and direct the conversation to a more useful outcome. Such things require tact, wisdom and a certain amount of courage. I wouldn’t do it lightly, but sometimes your duty to the client calls for it.
Not everything need take place within a meeting. For the sake of not embarrassing your supervisor you might choose to raise an issue post-meeting rather than in it, and then a follow up call or email to the client can clarify anything that went awry.
Finally, don’t speak for the sake of it. Your desire to be heard is all well and good, but if you aren’t adding to the conversation then just shut up. This is something that lawyers seem to struggle with. Advocates cross examine when they shouldn’t, advisers speak when they ought not, and people leap in when they should stand back. Words once spoken cannot be undone. Have you got any wisdom? Well use it when deciding whether to speak at all, not just in deciding what to say.
Find Your Voice
In the book “Own the Room” the authors seek to develop a concept of a “signature voice”. Although I admit I didn’t give the book itself the greatest review, I did like the concept.
Finding your voice in meetings is something that you need to evaluate on a frequent basis. Your role will change over time, and you need to adopt your method with it.
In general, your “signature voice” will be a blend of your driving determined approach, and your listening conciliatory approach. Using these things in harmony will have you seen as both a leader but also someone who takes others into account. Too much in either direction will likely not help, but a reasonable blend, adjusted as necessary, will see you in good stead.
If you’re not sure how you are perceived (and many people are not) then you need to ask somebody who will give you honest feedback, and given the permission to be frank with you. Don’t look in a mirror for this one – get a trusted colleague, mentor or friend who will challenge you with proper feedback.
Over time, your presence in meetings will develop significantly, and you will become a leading participant in meetings. So don’t be in a rush to get into the hot seat, just learn what you can about human interaction by actively paying attention to what people say, how they say it, body language and effective versus ineffective communication. You will almost certainly have a chance to see the good and the bad, so take lessons from both and then apply them in your own practice.
Good luck, and happy lawyering!