Earning the Right to Speak

When I was a younger lawyer, I tended to speak my mind more often than was appropriate. Thankfully, I had (mostly) patient supervisors who didn’t often tell me to shut the hell up. At least… not in a mean way.

with the right attitude you can often make the right decisions

Now that I’m a slightly-less-young lawyer (I’m sub-40 as I right this – that’s young, right?) I start to see a fascinating split among junior lawyers: some are overly demur, refusing even to disclose when they have no clue what you’ve just asked them to do.

Others, though, seem to think that the most important part of any conversation is that they can express their opinions about a matter, drawing on their massive amounts of non-practical academic experience and 2 months as an admitted solicitor.

This article is designed to be a helping hand to the second category.

Listening is More Important than Speaking

You work in a challenging and complex industry. There are difficult questions, unclear answers, and strategic decisions to be made at every step.

And the truth is that, for a time at least, you really have no clue what you’re talking about.

But even once you start to find your sea legs, learning to listening properly remains a critical part of practice.

This means listening to what is said, understanding it properly, and ensuring that you’ve received what is being communicated. That’s usually going to be the case even if:

  • you’ve done the research and they haven’t
  • you think you know what they are going to say
  • you’ve done this before
  • you have an opinion about the subject
  • you’re really busy
  • you want to say something
  • you haven’t had your coffee yet
  • you don’t like the person speaking
  • they’re not making much sense.

Just listen. Practice doing so in a way where you’re not just thinking about what you’re going to say, but in a way where you are taking in what’s being put out.

Ask Questions Rather than Make Statements

Which of these is more respectful if you’re speaking to someone (irrespective of the “pecking order”)?

  • “I think what you just said is wrong because section 497 of [insert act] says so”; or
  • “Do you think that section 497 of [insert act] might be relevant to this issue? I was reading it the other day and it seemed to suggest… [insert suggestion]. Should I check into that?

I know that “being respectful” isn’t a subject at law school, but perhaps it should be. Not out of fear or some kind of religious deference to those with the word “partner” in their title, but because it’s a demonstration of character. In truth, respectful speech shouldn’t be limited to those more senior than you – it should be a habit of every interaction.

And asking questions is almost always a better was to be respectful than making declarations.

Earn the Right to Your Opinion

I’ve written before about unnecessarily large amounts of bravado in the legal profession, and this is connected to the same issue.

It might seem archaic, or ageist, or something else offensive to your sensibilities but the truth is if you haven’t earned the right to express your opinion then perhaps you shouldn’t.

I confess, I probably expressed my opinion many times when I ought not have – it took some time and practice to stop interrupting people (and I still do it sometimes) with my input.

But if the person you’re speaking with hasn’t asked for your informed opinion about something, why would you think they wanted it?

This might be situational – some relationships and cultures certainly exist where a robust exchange of opinions can swiftly achieve a good result. But, unless you’re sure otherwise, perhaps your opinion actually isn’t as important to everyone else as it is to you.

But how can you earn it? The same way as everyone else, in every industry around the world. Through hard work, and a demonstration over time that when you express an opinion it’s worth hearing about.

But When?

This is the million dollar question – at what point, on what day, or with what seniority will this kind of consideration soften, and allow you to express your opinion freely like you see everyone doing on TV.

There’s no answer to that question, because it’s less about seniority and more about relationship and situation.

Here’s the thing: be subjectively sensitive to when it’s a good idea to express yourself, when you should ask questions which might invite further discussion, and when you should just stay quiet.

Make the call as best you can, and learn from the outcomes. Nobody ever said this stuff was easy, but with the right attitude you can often make the right decisions.

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