Make Communication Skills "PIVOTAL"

By Irene Leonard, Lawyer Coach    

Reprinted with the permission of the King County Bar Association

The practice of law is highly dependent on good communication skills, especially persuasive oral communication skills. This article will address seven key communication skills that are a must for lawyers to master.

A good way to remember the seven key skills at which all great legal communicators excel is by using the acronym PIVOTAL. These are:

P: Be Persuasive
It's a given in the practice of law that, to be successful, a lawyer must be persuasive, especially when negotiating, convincing judges and juries, hiring outstanding staff and responding to client requests for a proposal. To be persuasive, you need to be inquisitive and open in order to understand your audience's thoughts and beliefs, and then align your arguments accordingly.

If possible, schedule an important discussion for when you are feeling most confident. Be calm, prepared and detached. Do not let uncontrolled emotions run the conversation.

I: Be Inquisitive or Curious
Being curious about someone helps us engage and validate that person. When we ask questions, we convey interest and curiosity. We also give ourselves the opportunity to really understand what is going on with the person — a crucial factor in delivering sound legal advice.

Asking "powerful" questions also may deepen the individual's awareness of his or her problem, an added bonus in helping a client who has come to you for help. Powerful questions are ones that are thought provoking. They are open-ended and not leading questions. They use "what" or "how," rather than "why."

An example of a powerful, thought-provoking question is: "What do you think of that?" It's important not to help clients by giving them the answer you think appropriate; wait to hear what they come up with. The originality of their answers may surprise you.

V: Deliver Value
Ensure that what you have taken the time to say has value to the person with whom you are communicating. Since most lawyers bill their time, it is critical that their time spent communicating be valuable. Ensure that your message is clear, succinct and understood.

What result do you want to get out of a conversation? Answering that question will help you determine the conversation's value. Then you can plan what you are going to say. Since conversations do not often go as planned, anticipate problems and prepare to address those problems. If possible, rehearse out loud what you anticipate saying. Having a script is very helpful.

O: Be Open
Let go of making assumptions. Be open to the possibility that you do not know what the person is going to tell you. It's important that you understand where the person is really coming from before you start to help them.

Being open also includes being able to come up with many different ways to look at the problem. Be creative and consider different options, ideas, strategies and courses of action.

T: Be Willing To Talk or Pick up the Phone
With the ease of email, it's important to ensure that your verbal skills remain high, because there are many occasions when it's necessary to talk to a person rather than email or write them. For example, the delivery of bad news is best handled by conversation rather than by email. Negotiations are also more appropriate by conversation. Discussing a problem with a client verbally gives you the forum to engage in the other six communication skills that will help you maintain the client's trust.

Calls that you might not want to make include letting a client know that a matter will not be completed by the promised date. As soon as you know the matter won't be completed on time, pick up the phone and talk to the client. The sign of a confident, competent lawyer is one who handles problems through honest, prompt communication with clients.

It is important to balance talking with not talking too much. Dominating the conversation by talking too much does not leave room for listening, learning or understanding. Quiet or introverted lawyers need to be sure that they don't talk too little.

A: Deliver Sound Advice or Counsel
Clients come to you for advice and your opinion on what they should do. When appropriate, don't hold back on giving them advice that is business advice rather than strictly legal advice. You want to help your clients take action on their problems and you make this easier for them if you give them your opinion or advice.

L: Be a Good Listener
Good listening skills are crucial for effective legal communication. When you listen to clients, they feel understood and are more trusting of you. To connect with your clients and others and have them experience you as an effective lawyer requires you to maintain superior listening skills.

When we really listen to a client, we can hear levels of communication that may deepen our understanding of the client's problem. Since lawyers are smart, they often anticipate what is going to be said and end up listening at a minimal level. It's important to avoid that tendency. In addition, don't interrupt; avoid rehearsing answers while the other person is talking; look for the feelings that underlie the person's comments.

Don't worry about controlling the conversation or demonstrating your intelligence by giving an answer before you have fully heard the question. Let go of being uncomfortable with listening to your client's feelings. Good listening skills include silence and being intuitive.

Reasons for Good Communication Skills
Good communication skills are pivotal to a successful, rewarding practice. You need to communicate well with your clients, staff, partners, associates, other lawyers and vendors. Improving your communication skills will let you express yourself with more confidence; more confidence will help you attract more clients and influence your peers and referral sources.

Good communication skills will lead to a more profitable and enjoyable practice: more profitable because clients that you communicate with well are more likely to pay your bill; more enjoyable because if you are communicating well with people, they will trust and like you, and that will make it easier to like them and enjoy helping them.

So, get to work improving your communication skills. Remember, it's PIVOTAL.

After more than 19 years as a business lawyer, Irene Leonard offers practice development coaching services as a professional business coach. She helps lawyers improve their ability to be persuasive. Go to her Web site,, or contact her at 360-922-0944 for more information.