AI – artificial intelligence – and its relatives, digital research engines, “bots,” and other automatons, have made their beachhead in the legal profession, and it really looks like this is gonna change everything.
Yeah, yeah, we know this isn’t the first time we and other pundits have predicted that sudden and/or overwhelming forces or technologies – outsourcing, offshoring, legal project management, alternative fee arrangements, expert systems, for example — would demolish the legal profession’s historical foundations and fundamentally alter its face, processes and economics. So far, however, the waves from all these tsunamis have only come up to our ankles. For most lawyers, it’s business as usual.
But, as Monty Python might put it, “and now for something completely different.”
Wow, Check This Out
What would you think if you heard that a bunch of people had gone into one of the world’s greatest libraries, sliced the spines off all the books, physically cut the guts out of them, and then fed the loose pages into a machine? If you’re a lawyer, what you should be thinking is the future is here, brought by some startling innovation and one of the world’s great law school heavyweights.
In a spectacular act of self-mutilation, Harvard Law School, whose library is unmatched except by the Library of Congress, has done just that. In its astonishing “Free the Law” project, Harvard has teamed up with a California start-up called Ravel Law to digitize every state, federal, territorial and tribal judicial decision since colonial times by feeding over 40 million pages physically cut from the books shelved in the Harvard Law Library into a high speed digital scanner.
Watching this incredible scanner is like watching one of those bank bill-counting machines riffle through a stack of Jacksons, except in this case what’s being riffled is the core and evolution of American legal knowledge, a searchable database of case law that eventually will be offered free on the Internet, allowing instant retrieval of vital records that now often must be paid for (Ravel Law hopes to offer, for a fee, more advanced analytical tools).
What is emerging – at the cost of millions of dollars to create – is “data driven research” that provides case analytics, judge analytics and search visualization. Initially, this enormous database – and not just limited search results – will be shared with scholars and not-for-profits that want to develop specialized applications. After eight years, the lid comes off, and the database will be available to anyone for any purpose.
The current big subscription companies such as Westlaw and LexisNexis that charge subscribers for digitized access to case law claim not to be alarmed by the Ravel/Harvard alliance, saying that they offer access to a wider range of relevant legal information and new ways to analyze it. “Core primary law is only the beginning,” said Andrew Martens, Westlaw’s chief of legal products. He says that Westlaw’s owner, Thomson Reuters, is developing new computer applications that can help, for example, draft arguments.
A Paradigm Shifts
In other words, technology is taking us beyond research to the applications of that research. Indeed, there is a bloom in legal assistance technologies that create powerful legal “bots” that apply data-mining technology to publicly available legal documents. One bot predicts how specific judges are likely to rule in certain kinds of cases, for example, and another analyzes thousands of state and federal cases using crowdsourcing.
All these super-efficient data harvesters can gather and organize data in more efficient ways, but imagine what would happen if they could provide insights about what information means, not just what it is. That’s what AI does.
Elementary, My Dear Game Changer
By now, you’ve probably seen the TV ads for IBM’s Watson, perhaps wondering what all the shouting’s about. As IBM puts it, “Watson is a technology platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data.” Put differently, Watson is a “cognitive system” – a link between human decision-making and computers – that searches an entire field of inquiry at digital hyper-speed, analyzes and synthesizes all the data it finds, evaluates the quality of the evidence it has gathered, uses acquired information to understand and interpret complex questions, reveals insights, patterns and relationships, and then ranks and prioritizes potential answers…all while also learning and teaching itself to expand its own capabilities.
You’re right if you think this sounds like the world’s smartest associate when these capabilities are applied to law, one who works at top speed 24/7, never gets tired, doesn’t require the input of pizza or caffeine, and doesn’t worry about making partner. Watson is much more than just a giant search engine; above and beyond its simple information-gathering ability, its functioning exercises a form of judgment. Think about that.
The implications for lawyer job security, at all levels, but particularly for younger lawyers, should be obvious. Today’s law students and associates are right to be alarmed at the prospect of entry level – and perhaps higher – legal work being Watsonized. Watson and its spawn threaten a similar paradigm shift in legal economics and law firm-client relationships, as clients flock to faster and more cost-effective approaches to basic legal issues and decisions. When and if the Watson Gang fully takes hold, clearly the whole human-based work allocation and economics of the legal profession are going to take a heavy shot to the head.
In May, The Washington Post wrote that one major law firm, Baker & Hostetler, had “hired” ROSS Intelligence, a “robot lawyer” and “the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney,” to serve as a “legal researcher” for the firm.” ROSS, by the way, is powered by Watson. Clearly something was trending here, with implications for the employment security of younger lawyers, even though BakerHotstetler hastened to assure the world that “ROSS is not a way to replace our attorneys – it is a supplemental tool to help them move faster, learn faster, and continually improve.” Right. And if you believe that…
And the Brits may be stealing the march, as such major firms as Linklaters, Pinsent Masons, Dentons, as well as smaller firms like Hodge, Jones & Allen, are either using AI or creating their own AI startups.
So far, in law ROSS has been pitched more as a high-speed search engine – fast but dumb — than as a decision-maker or solution engine, but as one former commercial litigator put it, “that’s just because the ROSS people want to scare us to death bit by bit, and not all at once.”
Oops, Not So Fast
Outside of law, Watson already has become an ecosystem of apps and iterations embraced enthusiastically in medicine, healthcare and patient care, travel, life planning, fashion, cooking, Sesame Street learning theory, flower delivery and all manner of statistical analysis. After all, as Google’s success shows us, who wouldn’t want to know everything about everything in one’s field?
Well, lawyers, that’s who. Or at least some lawyers. The logic of applying something like Watson to a universe of statutes, regulations, cases, decisions, articles, legal history, comparison/conflict of laws, law firms, legal departments and legal compensation appears obvious. Law should be fertile ground for Watson, right?
Until recently, however, the AI invasion of law had encountered a major barrier. Watson and its ilk require unfettered access to data to work their magic. But unlike medicine and other fields where all the data are there for the grabbing and disparate sources are happy to throw their data points into the stew, in law many of the reported decisions and information sources are controlled by those big subscription services. Though the primary legal documents are formally in the public domain, many presently are not digitized, and they contract with the subscription services to digitize emerging information. Large law firms may pay millions of dollars a year to services like Westlaw and LexisNexis to research cases and trace intellectual pathways.
Understandably, these vendors are unwilling to provide all their data to Watson for free, on the apparent theory that if you can’t beat the enemy, maybe you can starve it to death. So at least in the world of law, has technology been stymied? If Ravel Law and the digitizing of the Harvard Law Library is any indication, not for long, brother.
A Hot Date, Indeed
That’s right, imagine this unprecedented meeting of the minds: Watson’s mind with Harvard’s library – or similar alliances or even marriages between their spawn and their relatives. What more need we say? Expect rapid exponential gains in both the sophistication and the efficiency of legal analysis and legal decision-making. Expect ancient edifices crumbling. The paradigm shift is upon us.
©2016 Legal Leadership LLC. All Rights Reserved.
The legal landscape is a sadder and emptier place today, following the recent deaths of two giants in legal consulting, Ward Bower of Altman Weil and Ed Wesemann of Edge International. Both succumbed to unexpected heart attacks.
We had the pleasure of working as partners with both of them, and the privileges and pleasures were ours. God, what you could learn from these two men! Clients have said the same: there was no trace of arrogance, pretentiousness or pomposity to mar their effectiveness. Both were eminently user-friendly resources to clients of all shapes and sizes. Both were skilled and wise.
Many lawyers would characterize Ward and Ed as competitors, but although they probably went head-to-head in their efforts to win certain engagements, we doubt they would have characterized themselves as adversaries. In fact, we know firsthand the mutual respect they enjoyed for one another.
Ward and Ed were alike in many ways. Both had a low-key personal style that sometimes masked dazzling intellectual brilliance and superb strategic perspective. Both could see the big picture and the granular view simultaneously, and both preferred crafting practical solutions to sitting around and talking smart. Both were adroit and practical troubleshooters. Both really knew what made law firms tick, and both were masterful at putting them together in mergers and, on occasion, helping firms extricate themselves from bad mergers. Both could reconcile the profession’s traditions with its headlong rush into today’s change-every-minute chaotic professional maelstrom. In all settings and situations, they remained consummate professionals.
On a personal level, both had huge hearts. It is indeed ironic that for both men, it was their hearts that ultimately failed them and deprived us all of their wisdom. It is very sad that two men so attuned to the heartbeat of the law now have had their own heartbeats stilled.
For all of us, from all of us, Thank you, Ward. Thank you, Ed.
We all know that many law firms send mixed messages to their lawyers (and often to their clients, too). They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk, particularly when it comes to the informal norms and values that define “the way we do things around here.” This opens them up to charges of hypocrisy – or at least insensitivity to the human factors that define law firm success in today’s market.
Consider, as a timely example, the legal profession’s continuing cry for better collaboration – both between law firm and client and among firm lawyers in a practice group or on a client team. Also, consider clients that have converged their roster of outside firms to just a few in number, and who now want their firms to collaborate with each other – for the benefit of the client.
For firms or teams with historically non-collaborative cultures (and that describes 99.9% of them), this “whole collaboration thing” has become a huge annoyance, an attempted interference with “how we’ve always practiced law.” For these folks the challenge is thorny: convince everyone that their culture is changing with the times while continuing to conduct business as usual. When they fail, there is often a huge – and demoralizing — gap between the cup and the lip.
Lost in Translation — A Tragic Play in Four Bad Acts
To illustrate, let us cast a true tale in the form of a play, the players disguised, but the plot all too familiar.
In the course of a client survey conducted by a major firm’s marketing department, an important client expresses dissatisfaction with a particular practice group. The survey response complains, in no uncertain terms, that the client team is extremely hard to work with (actually “jerks” is the term used). Particularly noteworthy is the charge that they seem unable or unwilling to collaborate effectively with the client — aloof, unresponsive, arrogant and generally unhelpful.
This client’s clout (and, let’s be honest, the threat of lost revenue from that client), plus this client team’s low marks, grabs the attention of the Managing Partner and the Executive Committee. The Practice Group Leader is informed that he must fix this problem, pronto.
Scene I: Duly alarmed at the prospect of losing big-time revenue, the Practice Group Leader calls on the Professional Development staff to implement “intensive collaboration training” forthwith. To avoid inconveniencing senior lawyers with high billing rates, the PD folks are instructed to commence this “culture-shifting initiative” at only the associate and principal/non-equity partner levels; senior level lawyers need not attend. The PD staff, of course, does as it is told, but several of them are seen rolling their eyes.
Scene II: In a frontal PR assault, the firm next informs the complaining client that it has received the memo and that the whole practice group will be undertaking intensive collaboration skills training forthwith to improve its culture and make it a more collaborative, responsive and more relationship-oriented provider of legal services.
So the firm has attempted to send two messages here:
1) We’ve changed, really we have!
2) We can instantly transform ourselves into a collaborative culture simply by subjecting our lawyers to a one-time training program.
By and large, the client response is favorable to this pronouncement, save for one brief, troubling response from a senior member of the client’s legal department: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the proof will be in the pudding. I’m from Missouri. Show me.”
Scene III: A consulting firm known for expertise in legal leadership and team effectiveness is retained to develop a bespoke collaboration skills workshop “to be used as a pilot for subsequent workshops in various firm practice groups.”
The consultants’ proposal calls for an initial cultural assessment of the group’s norms and operative values to create a “collaboration baseline.” This will be the foundation for a highly interactive 1.5-day off-site workshop using realistic case studies, role plays and other hands-on exercises to teach practical collaboration, delegation, feedback and motivational skills. The consultants even suggest a module at the end where some client lawyers can sit in and interact with the firm lawyers in order to “cement” the new collaborative approach.
Scene IV: After a brief meeting in a dark cave, the firm’s Management Committee finds this approach too expensive and insists that the workshop be shortened and conducted with a “selected” group of associates – mandated to attend — and a couple of firm partners in a conference room at the firm. No client in-house lawyers are invited to attend.
It gets worse. Over the consultants’ objections, the final workshop design calls for a single 3-hour “Principles of Collaboration” workshop that includes only a few interactive group discussions, but no case studies, role-modeling or partner participation except for one practice group leader. It includes a “working lunch,” so that participants’ time away from their desks is minimized. Oh, and to “optimize our investment,” the firm insists that the workshop be eligible for CLE credit
In short, the “intensive collaboration initiative” has morphed into a quickie, drive-by training seminar.
Several of the consultants are seen rolling their eyes. When the associates are told to attend, they lower their eyes.
The Play is the Thing
Scene I: When the workshop begins, several associates ask about its objectives and how it connects up with their quality of life (laughs around the room) and their annual performance evaluations. A firm representative promises that “this is the first step in a cultural reboot” of the practice group and that the workshop has been designed as a professional development opportunity. Several associates are seen rolling their eyes.
Scene II: In a discussion of how to give performance feedback – both reinforcement (praise) and corrective (criticism) – as well as how to provide incentives for superior performance, one practice group leader describes the firm’s cultural climate and its feedback approach thus:
Practice Group Leader (PGL): Well, all this kindler-gentler stuff sounds well and good, but if you want to know the truth, I’ll tell you how we really do it around here. When a young lawyer screws up, we use the “blame and shame” method. We cut them out of the herd, let ‘em stew in shame, and stop assigning them work. Pretty soon they get the picture that they’re in trouble.
Workshop Leader (WL): Who gives them feedback and instruction about what they did wrong and can do better? When do they get that feedback?
PGL: No one. And never. That’s the point. Our view is that if they can’t figure out what they did wrong, they’re not going to make it here in the long run, and they’re not the kind of lawyers a firm of this caliber should spend a lot of effort trying to cultivate.
WL: Well, what effect does this isolate-and-shame approach have on team members’ willingness to collaborate, share information, and give constructive feedback?
PGL: It is not our culture to nurture the weak. We subscribe to what some call “social Darwinism:” we throw ‘em into the deep end of the pool, and a couple of years later we come back to see who is still afloat.
WL (agitated): In addition to destroying any incentive to collaborate, isn’t that approach to lawyer development pretty expensive at today’s salaries?
PGL: We are not a social services organization. Lawyers who make it here survive a trial by fire, and they are all the tougher for it. This approach has long been the basis of our reputation, and we’re not going to change now. Law is not about kumbaya collaboration; it’s about excellent individual performance.
WL: Have you asked your clients what they think about this approach?
PGL: What our clients want is the best legal advice from the smartest lawyers. Collaboration is just a trend that clients will abandon when the next “new thing” comes down the pike.
Scene I: Nothing very much changes. The stage remains dark, the actors sullen, the client silent.
Scene II: Seven months later, the client who had complained about the lack of collaboration announces a “convergence program” to reduce the number of firms it uses and to create a core panel of law firm providers. The firm is asked to respond to a detailed Request for Proposal (RFP) that notes that the client will be using a “zero-based selection process” under which no existing service provider will be given preference.
Scene III: The firm’s marketing department writes a 35-page response to the RFP which claims, inter alia, that 1) “Effective client communication and collaboration are an historical hallmark of the firm’s approach to legal service delivery;” and 2) “The firm’s rigorous and newest approaches to professional development builds attorneys of unparalleled expertise, judgment and commitment, at all lawyer levels.”
Scene III: By subsequent letter, the firm is informed that it has not been selected as one of the client’s panel firms and is instructed to transfer all existing files to a certain medium-sized litigation firm in the deep south. A deep cry of anguish is heard, stage right. As the curtain falls, paralegals are seen rolling their eyes as they pack up the boxes.
©2016 Legal Leadership LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This post is targeted to Leaders – to all you Practice Group Leaders, Project Leaders, Team Leaders, and even Firm Leaders – whose role is to get assorted performers to pull together effectively in harness. But you followers and worker bees should feel free to listen in, because, after all, you are the object of your leaders’ efforts.
In our last post, we reviewed Google’s Project Aristotle, an intensive research project that identified factors that create excellent collaboration in teams. While Google’s People Analytics Division was able to spotlight some prerequisites for a climate of collaboration (“psychological safety,” empathy, and “equality in terms of conversational turn-taking”) it did not define practical action steps for implementing effective collaboration once these prerequisites are present. So all across the landscape of the legal profession, frustrated leaders’ voices continue to cry out, “All right, already. I get it. But what exactly do I do?”
In this post we want to provide you with a nuts-and-bolts template [See Below] of beguiling simplicity for getting those cats you’re trying to herd to work more constructively together. You Practice Group Leaders and Project Managers should laminate it, stick it in your desk drawer, and pull it out when planning, organizing and/or managing any activity that requires two or more people to work effectively together. Try it, you’ll like it.
Fundamental Collaboration Principles
For a start, disabuse yourself of the notion that legal teams are collective organisms, like colonies of coral. They are not affinity groups, geared to the satisfactions of membership, inclusion, acceptance and empathy. Legal teams are results-generating machines, built of many different moving parts whose purpose is to produce excellent outcomes, not reward relationships for their own sake.
You also must appreciate that while group productivity appears to be a “team” activity with “team” rewards, it’s inevitably built on the attitudes and behaviors (and, of course, fears) of a bunch of individuals. Only when we aggregate a bunch of individual behaviors do we see an outcome that appears to have a collective purpose (this is like summarizing millions of separate stock transactions and saying, “The stock market was bullish today”).
Skilled leaders know, implicitly or explicitly, that they should never move that dial from “radio station WIIFM,” whose mythical call letters stand for, “What’s In It For Me?” As one lawyer put it, “my antitrust litigation team is really a bunch of egos connected with central heat.”
Once you understand that collaboration depends on individual attitudes and motivations, you can see that an individual lawyer can and will collaborate only if three conditions are met:
1) s/he believes it is safe to collaborate;
2) s/he is motivated by the potential rewards of collaborating; and
3) s/he understands what to do in order to collaborate effectively.
We examined the first two of these conditions – factors that deal primarily with incentives, motivation, and team culture — in our prior post about Google’s Project Aristotle. Now it’s time for action.
Okay, Let’s Go Do Something
If a practice group leader or team leader can get past basic motivational issues and assemble a team of contributors willing and able to function collaboratively, will they automatically function together like a well-oiled machine?
Well, No. Not unless all players’ trust and commitment is supported with a clear and concise understanding of exactly what they are supposed to do.
In shaping and then managing a consistently high-performing team — of any kind, of any size — it is essential that the leader have a functional road map, a “team GPS,” so to speak, that assures that every team participant is fully informed regarding all relevant factors in the “collaboration equation.” [NB: the time-honored “hub-and-spokes” leadership style that legal leaders so love, with an omniscient leader at the hub surrounded by a bunch of ill-informed, “need-to-know” performers arrayed out there at the periphery, is a terribly inefficient and motivation-killing approach to management].
Getting a GRIP
Enter the GRIP model.
Below (and in a link to a downloadable pdf), you will find the GRIP template, which is simply a logical sequence of questions that elicit and communicate practical information crucial to planning and evaluating collaborative activity. It’s not rocket science, although we first discovered it being used by a team of rocket scientists at GE aerospace as a shorthand form of “critical path analysis.”
GRIP has four components:
Goal Clarity (G);
Role Clarity (R),
Quality of Interactions (I), and
Quality of Processes and Procedures (P).
It is better and easier for leaders to attempt to engineer GRIP into team collaboration from the beginning, rather than try to trouble-shoot it in after the team fails to jell, buy-in and collaborate. If all the GRIP questions have not been asked and answered before a project kicks off, implementation is likely to suffer gaps, redundancies, confused performers, turf wars, political jousting, and a tendency for things to stray off course.
In many cases, the answer to a particular GRIP question may be easy or self-evident. Ask all of the questions anyway; unexamined assumptions tend to bite hard and deep. Each of the GRIP questions is important, and any unasked question or untested assumption is a vulnerable spot waiting for Murphy’s Law to take hold.
In addition to the focus it brings to planning, the GRIP model also can serve as a point-by-point template for evaluating team performance at the end or trouble-shooting problems along the way. How’d we do on each step to collaboration? Did we have a GRIP?
The GRIP model of team collaboration “cascades.” That is, without the first item – Goal Clarity – nothing else downstream will work worth a darn: no strategy = no direction and uneven results. With good Goal Clarity but poor Role Clarity, failure and friction among performers are inevitable. If both Goals and Roles are clear, but everyone is in the dark or bummed out — if the quality of Interactions has been neglected or communication suffers — morale will soon flag, and compliance or acquiescence is the best that can be hoped for. Babel ensues. Finally, of course, absent clear Processes that map desired activity, define performance standards and measure progress objectively, all the other team virtues are just nice-sounding lip music.
Note that the GRIP collaboration does not prescribe specifically what to do in response to each question; its job is to flag what must be done. But none of the action steps illuminated by GRIP questioning falls outside the repertoire of any competent leader’s skills. In other words, GRIP is an action-organizing model, reflecting the truth that more collaboration is eroded by lack of direction and poor delegation (and lawyers are notoriously lousy delegators) than by sub-par legal knowledge or experience.
The Costs of GRIP, the Benefits of GRIP
Performing a GRIP analysis – even on the fly – has some costs: it takes some time and runs counter to lawyers’ natural drive to dive in and begin billin’ them hours. But the benefits of even a quick-and-dirty GRIP analysis are worth the effort: the model is clear, it’s consistent, it’s logical, it eschews jargon, and it’s easy to remember.
So there you have it: if your team members don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, if they’re dropping the ball or stepping on each others’ toes, if they are talking trash or not talking at all, or if they don’t know either how they or their team are doing, there is a solution: Get a Grip.
Getting a GRIP on Collaboration Template
[And, here’s the Legal Leadership GRIP Template]
- G: Goal Clarity: Has the leader communicated and reinforced GOAL CLARITY?
- Do all team members understand WHAT our objectives, outcomes and deliverables are?
- Do all team members understand WHY we are pursuing them now?
- Are the Goals and objectives communicated CONSISTENTLY?
- Do we all AGREE on the team’s goals, objectives and priorities?
- R: Role Clarity: Has the leader assured that at all levels there is ROLE CLARITY?
- Have we INVENTORIED our skills and experience to determine the capabilities at our disposal?
- Do we all know what each of us is supposed TO DO at all stages of the team’s activity?
- Do we all agree that we are the right person for our role? Do we “have the right people on the bus?”
- Do we understand the CONNECTIONS and RELATIONSHIPS between our roles? Do we all know who is accountable to whom — both on the org chart and on specific tasks?
- Do we all understand the BOUNDARIES of our authority, responsibility and accountability?
- Do we know how we will allocate AUTHORITY, RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY?
- I: INTERACTIONS: What about communication, morale, “buy-in” and trust?
- Are the team’s COMMUNICATION CHANNELS & PATHWAYS clear and consistent? Do team members know when, how, how often and about what to communicate with each other?
- Is the POWER STRUCTURE & PECKING ORDER clear, fair and enforced?
- Does the leader DELEGATE tasks and responsibilities easily and effectively?
- Is the leader assuring that ALL VOICES are being heard? Does the leader champion diversity and insist that all STYLES accepted and respected?
- Can the leader articulate and enforce the group’s positive behavioral NORMS and VALUES?
- How will DISAGREEMENTS be resolved?
- Are individual performers’ motivational incentives supported?
- How will the leader curb UNPRODUCTIVE BEHAVIOR, CONFRONTING CONFLICT & DIMINISHING DISCORD?
- How will the team on-board and ASSIMILATE new team members?
- P: PROCESSES: Does the leader understand and communicate what to do, how to do it, how we interact with others and how we’ll measure progress and performance?
- Does the leader have clear and concrete plans, priorities, procedures and standards for EACH DELIVERABLE?
- Does everyone one the team we have SUFFICIENT RESOURCES? (PTM = People, Time & Money)
- Has the leader specified how the practice group will MONITOR and COORDINATE our efforts?
- Does the leader — or his designates — provide frequent, behavior-based FEEDBACK? (Form, formality, frequency, causes and consequences)
- Does the leader have the courage and perspective to TEST OUR ASSUMPTIONS and REALITY-TEST progress?
- Has the leader thought through CONTINGENCY PLANS if things go off course?
- Does the team regularly perform POST PROJECT REVIEWS to support continuous process improvement?
©2016 Legal Leadership LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Problem: These days productive lawyering, successful onboarding of lateral hires, and effective Legal Project Management (LPM) place a huge premium on effective collaboration, and a recent Harvard Business Review study found that “time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more over the last two decades.” But lawyers, because of their autonomous nature and persistent drive for personal achievement, are neither naturally collaborative nor comfortable as team players.
Not only that, to the extent good collaboration builds on positive emotional states – messy, abstract things like trust, motivation, respect, and supportive interpersonal relationships – you can count most lawyers out. They don’t want to mess with all that touchy-feely stuff, no sir.
Googling The Wisdom of Aristotle
But here’s some breaking news for lawyers: You have to come to grips with peoples’ emotional states and buy into constructs like ‘psychological safety’ – because Google says you have to.
Once again, Google set out to solve all our problems – including the challenge of how to foster effective team collaboration. So in its Project Aristotle initiative commenced in 2012, Google undertook to figure out why some of its hundreds of teams stumbled while others consistently out-performed their peers.
Google’s People Analytics Division spent millions of dollars measuring every aspect of its employees’ actions and interactions, looking at collaboration – and potential collaborators – from every possible angle. Project Aristotle reviewed 50 years (yes, 50!!!) of academic literature and it scrutinized both hard factors and soft factors, looking at everything from which traits are shared by the most highly-rated managers to how often particular team members ate or socialized together. It sought patterns of personality and performance, chased down canons of collaboration, strove to tease out group and individual incentives. Drawing on input from the company’s best statisticians, organizational psychologists, engineers and managers, these dudes took rational analysis to the extreme.
Whoa, Houston, We Have a Problem
To its very considerable surprise, in its exhaustive search for patterns of performance, Google found…nothing.
No matter how Aristotle researchers aligned the data, it was nearly impossible to discern patterns or, remarkably, any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference in collaboration and performance. “There weren’t strong patterns here,” said Abeer Dubey, a manager in the People Analytics division. “We looked at 180 teams from all over the company. We had lots of data, but nothing showed that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.”
Aha: Culture Matters
Eventually, the Aristotle team did identify what appeared to be a core construct for constructive collaboration. They found that successful teams tend to evolve their own unique set of informal but powerful “group norms” – traditions, unwritten rules and informal standards – that govern how people should behave when engaged in team activity. After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing each team’s group norms was the key to improving team performance. In other words, Culture Really Matters.
So How Do We Build a Collaborative Culture?
But here’s the rub in trying to develop universal and uniform collaboration: different teams tend to evolve dramatically different cultural norms, based on the disparate personality traits and motivational drivers of their members. This means that developing a powerfully aligned culture can be messy on new teams where members are selected based solely on the knowledge and skills they bring to the party, and not on the basis of shared interests, incentives, and resulting behavioral norms. It also means that a whole lot of lateral hires are going to fail, because no one is attending to the emotional aspects of supporting new arrivals during transition, helping them fit in, and showing them the cultural ropes of their new milieu.
Fortunately, for the future of collaboration in low-trust environments like law, the Google researchers finally identified one factor that was absolutely instrumental to trust and collaboration with colleagues, regardless of team members’ personality types.
Google’s data suggested that “psychological safety,” more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.
Psychological safety can be defined as a team’s capacity for empathy and its members’ ability to connect with each other on a personal level. In order to be willing to collaborate, team members must feel confident that their team will not embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up and expressing their feelings openly. Put differently, effective cultures are “empathy engines.”
The Punch Line
So there you have Google’s not-so-secret formula, the algorithm they think they can scale: Collaboration is a function of culture and constructive culture is a function of open communication and empathy.
And when the Google researchers dug deeper into the idea of open communication, they found that on “good” teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, which Google labeled “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” For you lawyers, that translates to “everyone gets to talk, everybody has to listen, and high-performing team members listen more than they talk.”
And empathy, that ultimate touchy-feely weasel word? If you loathe the word, try substituting the word attuned, instead. As in, “in highly collaborative teams, members are attuned both to each others’ emotional states and needs and to the ‘political’ currents that shape group dynamics.” Or, to repeat ourselves, Culture Really Matters.
Today’s law firms have pretty much abandoned the clubby, collegial and resolutely male-dominated cultures of yore, substituting a relentlessly bottom-line driven, “everyone for themselves” mentality. Perhaps that would not be all bad, if this shift left greater windows of opportunity for diverse performers. But it doesn’t; today, it’s cold and hard for everybody.
That’s why, in many cases, law firms are not very nice places to work. Perhaps more to the point, profitability may be up, but so are rates of attrition, the number of unhappy clients, and the percentage of lateral hiring failures. Google’s message? The pursuit of optimal performance requires greater attention to human trust factors than most law firms currently exhibit or are willing to invest in.
© 2016, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.
In recent posts, we have been discussing the wasteful and demoralizing patterns of “asymmetrical communication” between male and female lawyers, particularly as it impacts team collaboration and effectiveness, as well as good Legal Project Management (LPM). But what, as a practical matter, can be done about it?
How Can We Tackle the Problem?
One school of thought is to yell at the women: Stand up! Buck up! Speak up! Don’t apologize! Don’t ask for permission to speak! Another school suggests focusing corrective measures on the other gender, calling out the men in an unprecedented crusade of sensitivity training that says, in effect, Hey, don’t be such jerks.
Both of these approaches are defensible – but probably impracticable on a profession-wide scale. We all know that it is common for female lawyers who grab the mike or take the reins to be labelled aggressive, rather than assertive, to be derided and sanctioned for being “difficult.” It is equally unrealistic to expect men who learned power-acquisition techniques at the knees of successful mentors to undergo a spontaneous attitude shift , that is, to become collaborative rather than competitive.
Okay, we grant that there is no simple solution to what clearly is a deep-seated and complex social problem. But, we can suggest a couple of basic strategies that can reorient inter-gender communication toward doing what works, rather than simply warring over who has the most power.
First, Think Alliance
The LPM perspective on legal activity places the highest importance on building operational, not gender, alliances. The emphasis should be on working relationships that can be effectively planned and managed – alliances which focus on identifying and pursuing all the determinants of client satisfaction. This perspective suggests that communication barriers among any stakeholders creates “friction losses” that risk frustrating the client – that source of all that is good in legal revenue and profits.
As we noted in a prior post, law firm initiatives that emphasize woman-to-woman empowerment efforts are a good, but not sufficient, starting point. Ida Abbott, long recognized as the foremost champion of effective mentoring and inter-gender power alignments, and author of The Woman’s Guide to Leadership and Power in Law Firms, acknowledges that communications misery among women loves company. But she also looks at the practical challenges of alliance-building in terms of learning to fraternize with the enemy (and thereby to learn that they are not necessarily the enemy):
Building a strong network is challenging for women in a male-dominated field like law. So many women focus on building business relations with other women because it’s easier and more comfortable. But these relationships don’t tap into the generally more valuable and immediate opportunities that men can offer because men still control most firms, clients and opportunities. So women also need to develop relationships and build networks with men, even if it’s harder and feels awkward.”
In our view, the most practical way to enlist others in collaborative alliances – in a meeting, in a client engagement, in business development and client relations – is to focus on the gender-neutral activities of effective project scoping, planning, team selection, and team management – under the circumstances. In all cases and all settings, it is always appropriate to ask, “What will work best here and now?” For example, pre-meeting alliance-building is a particularly effective way to ensure that a woman receives appropriate air time in important conversations; it involves having a respected supporter intercede if the female lawyer is being ignored or interrupted: “Hold it a second, guys. Ellen has discussed an issue with me that really bears consideration.”
Yes, alliance-building requires a shift in mind-set from “I-think” to “we-think,” and from being an individual contributor to a team collaborator. We realize that this is an upstream swim. However, this is a shift that, done right, always all voices to be heard, and invariably improves both performance and morale.
Second, In the Moment, Name the Frame
On the freeway, when everyone in the car hears that ugly thwap, thwap, thwap sound, someone is bound to say, “Sounds like we have a flat tire.” The driver pulls over and the flat is fixed. Lawyers don’t do that. Often they will continue on and on in dysfunction, none wanting to be the person who signals a problem, cries foul, or calls bullshit. This is especially true of women, who have been schooled not to make waves.
By declining to name the dysfunction – including ineffective communication – as an operational inefficiency, lawyers, being notoriously conflict-averse as a whole, tend to construct all manner of work-arounds. Workarounds are invariably costly and wasteful.
This may sound ludicrously elementary, but all team members, at all times, should be encouraged to “Name the Frame,” that is, to articulate, in value-neutral terms, any communication-related factor or force that impacts individual or team performance:
- “We are not getting full and candid input from all project levels and performers.”
- “We haven’t heard from Ellen.”
- “Our communication with all levels on the client side is being bottle-necked by insisting that all communication be run through the client relationship partner to the General Counsel.”
- “We seem to be confusing motion with action.”
- “As a group, we seem to be reluctant to advance innovative ideas.”
- “It’s clear from flagging performance that we do not have the right people on the bus.”
“Naming the Frame” only works if it is validated as a constructive behavior and couched in non-personalized, non-judgmental terms. Done well, it’s a technique for flagging operational needs in the performance system, not murdering or silencing messengers.
Third, Start with the Punch Line
Finally, on the personal communications level, there is one strategy that every lawyer should practice: Say what you need, first and foremost.
Speakers of Feminenglish, that deferential language of the unempowered, tend to wind up a lot before making the pitch: “Bill, if I may take just a moment here, and maybe this is a crazy idea, and forgive me if I overstep, but there may be an approach to budgeting this engagement that might help us avoid overbilling and write-downs.” This disclaim-apologize-defer approach both personalizes what should be an operational comment and waters down the communication. The better technique is to state your premise or request first, and then elaborate (or disclaim) only as necessary to assure others’ comprehension and acceptance.
It is faster and more efficient (and more empowering!) to start with the punch line, without apology or a request for permission, using what the touchy-feeler types call an “I phrase”:
- “Bill, I want to make a suggestion about an alternative approach to budgeting this case.”
- “Sue, I’d like you to go over with the team your idea for scheduling the depos.”
- “Folks, before we move on, I would like to be heard on one important point.”
Well, It’s a Start
These three strategies are neither cure-all nostrums nor quick fixes for asymmetrical communication. However, practiced consciously and consistently, each can be effective in altering unrecognized gender biases and unequal distribution of communication power. You have to start somewhere.
We want to thank the numerous readers from around the world who have responded to our posts with stories and examples of gender bias in the law firms where they practice. The examples came from Sweden, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Brazil, the UK, France, Spain, India, New Zealand and the United States, and there were remarkable commonalities in all the stories. We also noted a marked determination to address the bias issues in productive ways, armed with research, facts and figures. Below is a sampling of the articles that readers sent to us that have inspired, and sometimes enraged, them. We are so grateful to each and everyone of the readers for the heartfelt and amazingly helpful information.
Gender Equality and Quotas: What’s the Best Way Forward? (United Kingdom)
Law Fails Gender Bias Test (Australia)
Women Face Significant Discrimination, Research Shows (New Zealand)
Law Firms Try Female Leadership (United Kingdom)
Combating Women’s Initiative Fatigue (United Kingdom)
Seven Lessons in Gender Diversity (France)
© 2016, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.
We’re no sociologists, but it’s not hard to divine the root cause of asymmetrical communication between male and female lawyers: the perks, pleasures and pursuit of power. Power both creates and reinforces inequality – that’s its purpose, after all. So as between men and women, isn’t unequal power the inevitable consequence of the whole men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus thing? Have female lawyers simply chosen to play on a power-prejudiced playing field?
We can at least fathom the argument that misaligned gender power in group situations is not a matter of malicious, power-grabbing intent by males. Perhaps it really is the result, by both genders, of “gendered language socialization,” to borrow a phrase from linguistics professor Robin Tolmach Lakoff.
Perhaps, one argument goes, in their communication attitudes and style, a lot of males are simply mimicking the attitudes and behaviors of alpha colleagues who succeed, without conscious felonious motives. But that takes us back to the issue raised in prior posts of why we should put up with so much communication-related waste and inefficiency. Put differently, in today’s competitive and cost-constrained legal environment, much more commitment must be made to rectifying the legal profession’s crippled communication.
Who’s to Blame?
We know and respect a lot of enlightened male lawyers who can justifiably claim the high road, who respect competency over power, who encourage, mentor, sponsor and champion female colleagues. These are men who aren’t afraid to delegate power and responsibility to women and who can relate effectively to and collaborate effectively both with female colleagues and the increasing ranks of female general counsel. These are men who can comfortably acknowledge gender as an evident but secondary characteristic.
So there is some good news, as Anny Tubbs, Chief Business Integrity Officer for Unilever (Belgium) and Unilever’s first general counsel, suggests:
There is more focus on gender balance these days. We see male and female leaders who are very open about these issues and mindful of providing opportunities for women as well as men. There are more inspiring female role models, and fewer derogatory comments about professional women – all of which makes our jobs more rewarding.”
At the other end of the spectrum are the male lawyers who are tone-deaf to the dysfunctional inter-gender communication climate in which they work daily, who dismiss the issue as an artifact of whining women having chosen to play where the Big Boys play – or who think that women have chosen to unempower themselves by introducing the tension between practicing law and having children into the male-female power equation.
This is not a group we can expect to respond to exhortations to be more inclusive and less domineering. Experience suggests that they will not address underlying attitudes about gender and power, so not much is to be gained by simply banging on the unenlightened.
In the middle, however, there are legions of males who deny oppressive intent, who are offended at the suggestion that they are closet misogynists or power-mongers, and who want to be let off the hook.
The Words and the Music
For example, one of these male lawyers recently forwarded us an article from the AOL Men’s Netscape explaining why men don’t listen to women, with the tantalizing subheading, “He really isn’t listening to you! But you won’t believe the reason why.” Okay, friends, here’s the article’s answer: “When men and women speak, the human brain processes the sounds of those voices differently…The female voice is actually more complex than the male voice…Men have to work hard deciphering what women are saying because they use the auditory part of the brain that processes music, not human voices. Men’s brains are not designed to listen to women’s voices. It’s not the pitch of the woman’s voice, but rather the vibration and number of sound waves that cause the problem.” [emphasis added]
Well, that explains everything: asymmetrical communication is simply due to “differences in the size and shape of the vocal cords and larynx between men and women.” As Daffy Duck used to say, “Hah, hah, it is to laugh.”
When we read this article, we thought immediately of the discredited discipline of phrenology, which held that the shape of a person’s head correlated with various attributes, including intelligence and success. Like the “words-as-music” article, this is a seductively simplistic explanation to a complex, multi-variable phenomenon.
While the research described in this article may in fact be valid, it is absurd to present it as the explanation for asymmetrical communication patterns. We have similar problems with pundits who suggest that poor inter-gender communication is simply a matter of differences in male-female cognitive style. While such differences, and the stylistic preferences they engender, are well documented, ascribing Feminenglish solely to such differences dodges underlying issues about the dynamics of power.
Moreover, noted executive coach Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn might remind us that there are plenty of respected women leaders who seem to have no difficulty making themselves heard and understood by men. Here we might mention Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Indra Nooyi, Meg Whitman, Ginni Rometty, Mary Barra, and the (former and current) political heads of Australia, Brazil, Germany, Austria, Norway, Poland, Ireland, India, Israel, Canada, Switzerland, The Philippines, South Korea, and New Zealand. Some of these women are strident, some are soft-spoken. All command respect for their knowledge, judgment and wisdom. These women don’t just merit a place at the table, they own the table.
These accomplished women prove that it is certainly possible to project hard power in male-dominated environments, and that men’s brains can, in fact, hear women. But the burning question remains: Must all women resort to hard power in order to be taken seriously?
Next: Tactics and techniques for better-balanced communication.
© 2016, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.
Our current series of posts about Feminenglish, that peculiar deferential language female lawyers and business women have learned to speak in meetings with men, and last year’s related series about how men tend to grab the mike in meetings and “borrow” women’s ideas, are not intended as a feminist manifesto or a deep dive into diversity policy, gender politics or gender studies. Those worthy topics are the province of other authorities far more expert than we.
Our premise has been this: because of lawyers’ communication-related disconnects, discord, distrust and discouragement, particularly with respect to women, the legal profession is wasting a lot of horsepower. An unacceptable amount of horsepower.
What a Drag
In readers’ responses to these series, some have asked why we don’t confine our comments to our home field — the discipline of Legal Project Management (LPM) and its hallmark emphasis on systems, procedures and operations: good scoping, good planning, good budgeting, good monitoring and good post-project review. Here’s the answer: as we continue to report on LPM trends and developments, we see all too clearly how often it is that human factors – lawyers’ behaviors, attitudes and particularly communication styles – produce the greatest “friction losses” in productivity, lawyer morale, and client satisfaction.
Pop leadership guru Jim Collins emphasizes that excellent organizational performance is a matter of “getting the right people on the bus.” But there’s a huge difference between having the right people on the bus and consigning half of them to the back of the bus.
A perfect example: a female partner in a major litigation firm tells us her firm has firmly embraced LPM, largely because their clients insisted they do so. “Our processes and LPM technology are quite good,” she says. “But an interesting thing: when it comes to staffing our project teams, it’s always the men who do the frontline, client-facing lawyering, and it’s always female lawyers who are assigned the backroom LPM functions – the administrative functions, monitoring, budget tracking, the busy work.”
We’ve even given ourselves a name: ‘The LPM housewives.’ We do all the domestic work, but we seldom get the chance to show what we can do as lawyers or interface with the client.”
So yes, we are on a crusade regarding a topic that falls squarely in our wheelhouse, that is, our longstanding war on waste – on anything that erodes productivity, service quality, and/or client satisfaction in the legal profession. It has become accepted wisdom that the troubled state of inter-gender communications among lawyers creates huge inefficiencies, both in degraded collaboration between lawyers working together on project teams and in compromised communication between law firms and their clients.
When the Client is a She
On this latter point, the expanding ranks of female general counsel and senior in-house lawyers are particularly vocal in their criticism of firms that trot out diverse-appearing marketing teams, only to see the female and minority team members shushed in the marketing pitch and marginalized during subsequent legal service delivery. Accordingly, in their RFPs and subsequent oversight of outside counsel, they take diversity particularly seriously – as a team effectiveness issue as much as a moral imperative.
But while diversity and gender-related communication asymmetry are certainly related, they are not identical: while the client can mandate the composition of marketing and service delivery teams, it is hard for them to create explicit performance standards for the quality of team communication. As we will discuss in our next post, maintaining effective communication must become a self-reinforcing and self-policing activity – for lawyers of both genders.
A Matter of Morale
In addition to the functional friction losses caused by current inter-gender communication patterns, we hear constantly about the enormous profession-wide decline in morale among female lawyers. In this regard, Feminenglish imposes huge social and emotional costs as well as operational inefficiencies, starving female lawyers of the human rewards of respect, acceptance, inclusion, and collegiality. Scores of women, in all legal settings and at all levels, tell us vivid war stories and horror stories about the humiliating frustrations of trying to navigate an uneven playing field, about unequal access to opportunity and the marketplace of ideas, about earning a place at the table only to be encouraged just to sit there and shut up. They tell us about agonizing whether to give up on the profession altogether (and an increasing number are doing so).
This broad scale malaise and escalating exodus from the profession are of justifiable concern to managing partners and firm executive committees. That’s because their band-aid attempts to address “failure to thrive” – women’s initiatives, female-to-female meet-ups, and diversity task forces – simply are not changing the climate. The level of female lawyers making equity partner has now remained stagnant for decades, the number of females ascending to law firm governance remains low, and the high attrition rate continues among both associates and partners.
Leverage at the Apex
Some august experts discount the importance of this loss of emotional sustenance by subscribing to what might be called the “Tough Darts Doctrine.” They suggest that because law and business have historically been male-dominated environments, a woman’s decision to abandon Venus to compete on Mars implies a willingness to weather an inevitable bunch of slings and arrows in order to succeed on men’s terms: “Hey, you say that in order to be a big dog equity partner you have to undergo a personality transplant? Well, tough darts.”
For example, Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn, one of the nation’s foremost coaches for corporate C-suite executives and author of Destined to Lead, suggests that women who ascend to the highest rungs of corporate power learn to operate as if oblivious to the costs of asymmetrical communication; like the fierce Amazon warriors of legend, they suck it up, tough it out, and give as good as they get. In style, Dr. Wasylyshyn suggests, they are neither hyper-masculine nor hyper-feminine; they operate as if the world is gender-neutral, and their motivation is not diminished by suggestions that they are aggressive or “difficult.” To borrow a phrase from writer Simon Winchester, they become comfortable with “projecting hard power.”
Perhaps this damn-the-human-costs attitude produces individual rewards for apex performers atop the hierarchical corporate ladder, but we believe that overall it is dysfunctional in law firm settings supposedly defined by canons of partnership and professionalism, rather than raw power. We cannot expect all female lawyers to be apex Amazons willing to run roughshod over their colleagues – nor is it desirable to expect them to be. As a practical matter, and as we’ve suggested above, the costs of mediated communication get passed through to the client, and when this bias gets validated and reinforced, in the end, everybody – law firm, client, and individual lawyer – loses.
Typical of the way catchy neologisms leap into common currency, there’s a hot new compliment making the rounds these days: “So-and-so speaks truth to power.” The connotations of this high-powered compliment are rich indeed, suggesting here’s a person who is confident, courageous, smart, principled, forceful, truthful, and outspoken.
The so-and-so receiving this compliment is almost invariably male. That’s because it’s difficult – and frequently risky – for women in the business and legal world to speak truth to power. And when they do, suddenly it’s not praiseworthy behavior. It’s…aggressive, confrontive, rebellious, self-aggrandizing and somehow inappropriate. For example, Academy-Award winning actress Jennifer Lawrence (the world’s highest paid actress in 2015) recently wrote:
A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bullshit way; No aggression, just blunt. The man I was working with (actually he was working for me) said, ‘Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!’ As if I were yelling at him. I was so shocked, because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and when I give mine in the same exact manner, you would have thought I said something offensive.”
Women in a Meeting – and Elsewhere
In the first post in this series (“Battling Law’s Second Language,”) we coined a neologism of our own, describing Feminenglish as a distinct intergender communication dialect, “a language of self-defense, of frustrated communication, of lost and stolen ideas … of stymied career progression.” We noted that it is most observable in group meetings.
Feminenglish is a complex, shape-shifting phenomenon, an exercise in constant situational adaptation, of flying below the radar. Men often deny that it exists (or if it does, it’s not through their manipulative motives). High-powered women in law and business know it exists, that it represents the omnipresent backbeat in the rhythm of group communication. For women, Feminenglish represents an added layer of discourse, the simultaneous translation of what you want to say into a mode that does not make waves. As Washington Post reporter Alexandra Petri puts it, “you start with your thought, then you figure out how to say it as though you were offering a groveling apology for an unspecified error.”
Although infinitely nuanced, Feminenglish frequently has a number of common “tells.” The first and most frequent is simmering silence, a rapid intake of breath through the nose and a forward-leaning shift in posture communicating that we wish to speak…sometimes followed by a silent, discouraged sigh: Better to sit down and shut up. Sullen silence often is accompanied by other adjustments in posture intended to communicate a sense of “what’s the use?”: shoulders rolled forward, eyes lowered or averted, hands and arms held close to the chest. Later, when someone else trots out the idea that the frustrated speaker decided not to articulate, we see a pained wince, a rolling of the eyes.
Sorry I’m So Stupid
Feminenglish also builds on frequently employing a self-effacing disclaimer or apology, meant to signal acknowledgement that it is presumptuous and inappropriate to try to break into the flow of conversation:
- I’m sorry, Stan, but if I might venture a thought… “
- I don’t mean to speak out of turn, but…”
- “Maybe I’m off-base here, but…”
- “I don’t know. This may seem like a dumb idea, but…”
- “Of course I could be wrong, but…”
- “Maybe this would be better brought up later, but I just want to suggest…”
- “Forgive me if this seems out of line, but…”
Note that the classic disclaimer construction always sticks the word “but” after the initial ritual self-flagellation. In common English usage, sticking “but” in the middle of a sentence negates everything that goes before it (“That was a pretty good presentation, Ed, but…”). Not so in Feminenglish, where the use of “but” is intended to open a little teensy-weensy door through which the speaker might presume to push through a smidgin’ of substantive content.
Closely related to the disclaimer is a respectful request for permission to speak, utter an idea, state an opinion, or ask a clarifying question:
- “Can I possibly raise a concern here?”
- “May I suggest an approach that we might consider?”
- “Could I take a moment to respond?”
- “I’m sorry to break into your train of thought, but could you clarify …”
Sadly, this conversational gambit frequently fails. All the parental figure who has been asked permission has to do is say, “Maybe we can get to that later,” or “Sue, why don’t you and I discuss that off line,” or even, “Well, let’s move on.” Boom. Total power asymmetry. Big time denial of respect in front of the group. Loss of face. Feminenglish speakers have learned that asking permission is dangerous unless you know you will be accorded attention and consideration – and how often is that?
Asking a Question?
Uptalk, a lift in inflection at the end of a phrase, is how we ask questions in English. We laugh when millennials and other lower-order life forms default to uptalk for declarative statements (“He’s, like, so awesome?”). Yet Feminenglish contains uptalk all the time, because its speakers have learned that asking a question can serve as an oblique way to state an opinion:
- “Would it make sense to run that idea past the client?”
- “Why don’t we consider using associates in our Houston office for the preliminary discovery?”
- “Does it make sense to explore early settlement, since the client has emphasized real cost constraints?”
Hiding in the Tall Grass
In an effort to avoid the personal body shots that often come when they presume to speak for themselves or take a personal stand, Feminenglish speakers frequently use the nominative “we” rather than “I” to invoke the spirit of collaboration, consensus and team play. They have learned a basic rule of Feminenglish grammar: “I behind we, except after thee.”
Petri suggests, for example, that a Feminenglish translation of:
“I came. I saw. I conquered” would be:
“I don’t want to toot my own horn here at all, but I definitely have been to those places and was just honored to be part of it as our team did such a wonder job of conquering them.”
Who You Callin’ Passive?
The safest tactic, of course, is to eschew all reference to oneself (as part of a team or not) and hide behind the grammatical anonymity of the passive voice. Thus, “I can’t do that” becomes “It will be impossible for that brief to be completed by Tuesday.” Similarly, “I think that’s a really stupid approach” can be expressed passively as, “there is a significant likelihood that that approach might not succeed.” The subjunctive voice is helpful too: it’s a lot less confrontive to say, “might” and “could,” than to assert “shall” and “will.”
Join the Discussion…Please
In our next post, we will discuss where Feminenglish comes from and where it is likely to lead. As lawyers would put it, the issue will be joined. We hope for an active debate. Meanwhile, please add your fuel to the Feminenglish fire – on one side or the other — by taking us up on our previous request to send us your own experiences, examples and, yes, opinions.