Lawyer Assessment and Client Development – An Emerging Trend

by Pamela Woldow

As part of an innovative individual business development coaching program for a group of its high-potential partners, a forward-looking global law firm was persuaded to include a battery of personality and motivational assessment instruments to map out each partner’s “game face,” interpersonal style, motivational drivers and likely stressors or self-awareness blind spots.

This firm’s Executive Committee decided that because business development is so profoundly relationship-driven, any practical information regarding both one’s own “operative style” and that of existing and potential clients could translate into greater self-awareness, greater context-awareness, and a better grasp of how to relate effectively to different kinds of people in different kinds of marketing-related situations. In short, they saw a direct path between assessment and business development, a road paving the way for building better working relationships and better collaboration.

Mixed Emotions

The firm’s decision to do these assessments was not made without some qualms and controversy. These “tests,” as most people call them, spark mixed reactions among lawyers. Many lawyers shy away from “all that touchy-feely stuff,” arguing that their professional expertise and experience are their only relevant marketplace differentiators. But others recognize that any solid insights about how to build rapport and trust with varying types and stripes of clients (as well as with their own colleagues) can only enhance their effectiveness and their professional relationships, not to mention the size of their books of business.

Did I Pass the Test?

Although recognizing that “tests” is a commonly used term, legal coaches who conduct assessments dislike that word because it suggests that such standardized instruments as The Birkman Method, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Caliper, the Life Styles Inventory or various emotional intelligence inventories will assign grades and lead to respondents being pigeonholed into some kind of “poor-fair-average-good-excellent” rating system.

The creators of assessment tools argue strenuously that these instruments – that’s the word they like — do not and cannot measure competency, skills, or legal knowledge. They only paint an objective picture of how forcefully certain personality and interpersonal style characteristics express themselves.

That Was Then, This is Now

The profound changes in today’s legal landscape suggest that it’s time to reevaluate the utility of tools that objectively describe the operative style factors that affect lawyer success and lawyer-client business relationships.

Over and above the uses of assessment to support good hiring and lawyer assimilation (the subject of a future blog post in this space), firms that work with individual lawyers to translate assessment insights into individualized mentoring and professional development attention often see immediate gains in lawyers’ communication and collaboration skills, as well as in their social self-confidence.

As the partners in the BD coaching program described above soon realized, one of standardized assessment’s highest and best uses can be to enhance business development savvy and a lawyer’s ability to relate appropriately to differing client personalities.

Yes, being self-aware and having adroit social skills are critical success factors these days, but so is being able to understand what makes a particular client tick. Is he or she temperamentally affiliative, or an aggressive power-seeker? A natural collaborator or a turfy competitor? A stability-seeker or a risk-taker? A natural optimist or a guarded pessimist? More strongly ego-driven or more team-oriented? Does he or she relish the display of power or tend shy away from conflicts? Any insights that can be gained into these areas obviously are invaluable.

One particularly important rapport-building question is, “Is this client like me or unlike me?” If our respective thinking and interpersonal styles are markedly different, some focused self-awareness, and perhaps some behavior modification, are in order.

A Case Study in Modulation

During the BD coaching program, for example, assessment feedback of one partner emphasized that he was likely to be seen by others as a quick-witted and innovative big picture thinker, but also as intense and opinionated. His coach worked with him to modulate the forcefulness of his personality and to be sure to give others adequate “air time” in conversations and discussions. Then, as he prepared a marketing  pitch to a potentially high-stakes client in a novel area of commercial litigation, a casual acquaintance who knew the potential client mentioned in passing, “this guy makes a snail look fast. He crosses every ‘T’ and dots every ‘I’ and then goes back and does it again. I have never seen a more detail-oriented lawyer. He’s brilliant, but he moves so sloooow. He really feels overwhelmed by pushy people.”

Armed with these insights — both about himself and the potential client — this partner practiced several techniques in preparing both the content and presentation of his upcoming marketing pitch:

  1. In conversations to initiate their relationship, he called attention to manifest differences in style between himself and the client, rather than ignoring them or assuming his customary dominant role: “I think you and I are wired very differently, and I want to be careful that I don’t get so caught up in ideas that I’m not clear about the practical details.”
  2. He emphasized the practical implementation of his ideas, taking pains to explain how broad strategic ideas would translate into tactical priorities and ground-level action plans.
  3. In terms of his self-presentation style, he concentrated on slowing his rate of speech and inserting clear pauses in his thoughts so that the potential client would have plenty of opportunity to methodically process and organize information and to raise comments and questions.
  4. He focused on modulating his assertive style and promoting conversational give-and-take, as well as lowering the volume of his voice, limiting his enthusiastic interruptions and quieting his body language.

They got on fine, although the client does refer to dealing with this lawyer as “a cross-cultural experience.”

Overall, most lawyers who have undergone assessment report one important insight: when it comes to forging and sustaining powerful relationships with clients, one size does not fit all. Behaving in ways that make you comfortable but put clients on the defensive is a recipe for losing business. On the other hand, being attuned to the interpersonal nuances of rapport now has become an essential lawyer life skill, one that allows lawyers to adjust to changing circumstances and act appropriately in the moment. Assessment certainly can be an instrumental tool in that adjustment.

Written by:

Pamela Woldow

Legal Leadership on:

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