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Feminenglish Part V: Remedies for Lousy Communication

Posted in Law firm practices, Legal Project Management

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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.

The Legal Profession’s Gender Imbalance in a Chart

Only 7 BigLaw Firms Have Women Running The Show

Large Law Firms are Failing Women Lawyers

To Hold Women Back, Keep Treating Them Like Men

Proof That Women Get Less Credit for Teamwork

Mentors, Sponsors, and Dismissing the “Mean Girl” Mentality: Finding Success as a Woman in IP

Minority Women are Disappearing from BigLaw–and Here’s Why

Big Law’s Intractable Problem: Implicit Bias

How In-House Counsel Are Raising The Bar For Law Firm Diversity 

What’s Holding Women Back in the Workplace?

Gender Equality and Quotas: What’s the Best Way Forward? (United Kingdom)

Pay Like You’re Hiring Your Own Daughter – Merit, Not Manhood, Should Be the Only Guiding Principle in Pay

Big Law Gender Parity Initiative Picks Up Momentum

Legal First as Rival Firms Unite to Tackle Gender Bias (Australia)

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)

Indian Women Legal Lawyers Face Many Challenges (India)

Female Lawyers Still Battle Gender Bias

Nearly Half of Female Top Execs Say Being a Woman Has Held Them Back

The Time-Consuming Activities That Stall Women’s Careers

Report: Companies with Women Leaders are More Profitable

The Secret To Keeping Women Happy At Work Is Painfully Obvious

Corporate America Still Isn’t Making Progress on Gender Equality

© 2016, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.