How to be Persuasive

Persuasion for LawyersLet’s Start with a Wedding… Maybe

Michael and Jane have been dating for about 3 years, and they are madly in love.  Michael wants to propose, so he surreptitiously finds out her ring size and favorite style (princess cut, if you must know).  He arranges a romantic evening out, where he takes her to the place that they first met.  He ensures that Jane has a lovely time.  After dinner they go for a walk along the river, when at a suitable juncture in the conversation Michael drops to one knee and says “Jane – I’ve loved you since we met.  I want to spend the rest of my life with you.  Will you marry me?”  Jane responds with an enthusiastic yes, they embrace, and wedding bells are not far off.

Bob and Mary have also been dating 3 years, are in love and want to get married.  Mary gets home one day from a hard day at work.  Unfortunately despite getting home early Bob hadn’t yet got the dinner on, so Mary wearily begins to cut up some carrots.  She nicks her finger a bit with the paring knife, but it’s not too bad.  Bob, oblivious to Mary’s gradually descending mood, calls out from the couch as he watches the football “hey Mary – don’t you think it’s time we got hitched?”  Mary throws some carrots at Bob and storms off to take a shower.  Wedding bells are still some way off for Bob and Mary, it seems.

Both Bob and Michael essentially communicated the same thing:  that they want to marry their loved one.  But the result was drastically different.  Why?

Michael has been persuasive.  Bob has not.

How to Be Persuasive – A Short Series

Why did I just tell you about two fictitious people proposing to their girlfriends?  Because Michael and Bob are going to be our guinea pigs to examine in this series on how to be persuasive.  What worked, what didn’t – Michael and Bob can give us some answers as we look at what went wrong, and what went right.

I felt a short series on how to be persuasive was in order.  If you pay attention to these articles, you will come out with a better understanding of what it takes to persuade other people to your point of view.

This isn’t an exercise in me telling you what to say, word for word, and then you copying it and achieving great results.  What the series will do is to help you understand what people respond to.  What makes them tick.  This series will give you the tools to work on this incredibly important part of legal practice.  With it, you can take these fundamentals and run with them on your own journey towards being more persuasive in your legal career.

Attorneys and Communication Skills

At the end of the day, communication is all we do.

We read.  We write.  We listen.  We speak.  We explain, cajole, exhort, condemn, debate and articulate.  We can spend whole days on the phone or in conferences, and entire weeks at Court.  Everything we do is a piece of communication.  I’ve said this before on this site, and I’ll probably say it again many times.

Communication must come with a purpose, however, and one of the primary purposes a lawyer or attorney will be faced with in practice is that of persuasion.

Given the area I practice in, it would be easy to write about persuasion only in the context of Court advocacy, but that would be myopic.

The lawyer sometimes needs to persuade a practice partner of a course of action.  Perhaps they need to persuade a senior lawyer of a recommendation to give.  Maybe a client needs further persuasion in order to understand or agree with a proposed course of action.

Commercial negotiations require persuasion.  Mediation, conciliation and arbitration will all require persuasion.

Persuasion is an extremely valuable sub-set of communication for practicing lawyers in all areas.  If you aren’t persuasive, then your practice is hobbled.  If you are – then you have an opportunity to open doors that others can not.  For this reason, learning how to be persuasive is a critical part of any legal practitioner’s training.

Visualise the End Before Planning the Beginning

Let’s take another look at Michael and Bob, our romantic duo from the introduction.

Michael had a plan.  But before he had a plan, he saw the end – an embracing couple on the riverside, content and delighted with each other.  From that he established a strategy to get there.

It’s hard to know exactly what Bob’s end goal was.  He wanted to get married, sure, but it’s not apparent that Bob really thought beyond the question and answer phase of his plan.

As advocates, it’s imperative that we see the detail of the end goal before we leap in.  To persuade somebody, we need to understand precisely what we are trying to persuade them to do.  This allows us to ensure that we keep our eye on that end goal, rather than getting lost in the detail.

Think for a moment how many times you have commenced a conversation with a view to discussing Topic A, only to find that your time is eaten away by segues into Topic B, Topic C and Topic D – all interesting topics, but none of them the point of your initial approach.  They divert your attention.  If you have your specific end goal that you have decided upon, these distractions are less tolerable, and your prospects of keeping on topic increase significantly.

If your aim is to persuade (and it often is) ensure you have the target.  Visualize the end, before you plan the beginning and the middle.  That way you can reference everything you do against the goal – does it keep you on that track, or does it take you off?

Be specific here.  If you’re in a commercial negotiation, don’t just call up for an off the record chat with the other side to try and fish for information.  If you have a dollar figure in mind – keep it in mind.  If you want information, identify that information to yourself before you make the call.  That’s not to say that your strategy of getting there might not take a scenic route if you think that’s wise, but it all needs to be with the goal in mind.  You might, for example, decide that a conversation beginning at A is likely to go to B and then conclude with C.  Provided B or C are your target, then starting at A is perfectly reasonably if you can’t get there in a more efficient way.

As a litigator a large part of my job is to persuade the Court.  That can be a tough gig, as the control of the situation is not always with the advocate.  From experience, however, I know that getting profoundly lost in the minutiae of the case is not the way to persuade anyone of anything.  When I hear the opposing attorney start rambling about things peripheral to the central issues at hand, I am always glad.  Why?  Because my message is all on point.  Theirs is not.

How to Be Persuasive – More soon….

That’s all I’m going for today.  Think about what we’ve considered:

  1. As lawyers, the ability to be persuasive will allow us to stand out from our colleagues.  Convincing others to our point of view is a powerful tool in legal practice, both with our peers, our “opponents” and the judiciary.  Persuasion is critical and it behooves us to improve our abilities in the area.
  2. To be persuasive we need to know the goal.  The goal comes first, then the detail.  Without the goal in mind (and front of mind, at that) we frequently get lost in the frenetic pace of legal practice.  Distractions take us off point very quickly, so we must make sure we have both identified and articulated the specific goal we want.  You can’t persuade anybody of an idea that you haven’t yet conceived properly yourself.

In Part 2 we’re going to look at the principle of “know your enemy” so far as it relates to persuasion, and how you can go about applying it to your day to day practice.

Until then, Happy Lawyering!

How to Be Persuasive Series

This post is part of a series on how to be persuasive.  Here are the links to the entire series:


    • These are really important lessons that students could learn Justine. My law school certainly taught little beyond basic settlement talks.

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