Are you a ‘professional’ legal practitioner?

September 1st, 2018
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By Emmie de Kock

Do you like family photos that include at least three generations? Is it not interesting to see how different your grandfather is dressed from your father? Or how different your hairstyle is from your son’s? It is a huge privilege to have an extensive family with more than two generations in one family alive at the same time.

Today, most legal practices have a similar privilege in the sense that many law firms may have a team of legal practitioners from at least two or three different generations. These generations may include –

  • the Baby Boomers (born roughly between 1946 – 1964);
  • Generation X (born roughly between 1965 – 1980); and
  • the Millennials or Generation Y (born roughly between 1981 – 2000).

Each of these different generations have different traits, behaviours and attitudes, which often manifest in the workplace. In the article ‘Professionalism across the generations’, (www.employeedevelopmentsystem.com, accessed 28-5-2018), Baby Boomers, are for instance, known for their strong work ethic and discipline to work hard. Generation X are generally self-reliant employees who want structure and directions from leaders but are also happy to design and innovate new concepts and be entrepreneurial. Millennials generally like more supervision and need to know that their work is meaningful.

Belonging to a specific generation may help you develop your attitude towards technology, communication, behaviour and appearance. Does this mean that the different generations have different standards for professionalism in legal practices?

The purpose of this article is to explore some of the essential traits or standards of a professional legal practitioner. Below are some professional traits or behaviours to consider.

Dress for success

Regardless of your age or generation, if you want to be taken seriously as a professional, you should be aware that colleagues and clients first judge you by what they see, before listening to what you have to say. This is human nature. Have you heard the expression, ‘a man is judged by his shoes’?

However, according to psychology research on clothing, it is not only other people who judge you on your clothes, but more importantly how the clothes you wear make you feel. In this regard, clinical psychologist, Dr Jennifer Baumgartner (‘What your clothes say about you’ (www.forbes.com, accessed 28-5-2018)), explains that a study conducted in 2012 at the Northwestern University (in the United States) coined the concept ‘enclothed cognition’. This concept can be defined as ‘the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes’, which basically means what your clothes are saying to you (ie, how it makes you feel), not about you.

Researchers in the study distributed standard white laboratory coats to participants, telling some of them that it was a doctor’s coat, and others that it was a painter’s smock. All participants performed the same task, but those wearing the ‘doctor’s coat’ were more careful and attentive. It was clear that the actions of the participants were influenced by their clothing.

Researchers concluded that ‘enclothed cognition’ gives scientific proof to the idea that you should dress not how you feel, but how you want to feel. Do your clothes make you feel professional, competent and confident?

When you get dressed for work, remember to give attention to your whole appearance. Attend to your hair, have clean nails and hands and smell good. Does your appearance convey the right message to those around you?

If your firm’s dress code is casual, consider if scaling up the dress code could perhaps improve the moral or productivity of your firm?

Communicate with respect

Due to the nature of legal work, verbal, and especially written communication are essential skills for a professional legal practitioner. Do you remember the adage ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’?

In the article ‘4 ways Millennials can improve their communication skills’ (www.inc.com, accessed  28-5-2018), Susan Steinbrecher states that communication skills can be a challenge, in particular for many Millennials. Factors, which may affect the communication skills of the Millennials, include –

  • social media;
  • texting; and
  • other short forms of communication.

Ms Steinbrecher indicates that it appears that Millennials spend less time socialising face to face than previous generations, possibly resulting in lower levels of communication or social skills than previous generations.

Legal practitioners of the Baby Boomers or Generation X could experience frustration when training Millennial attorneys, who may not have had the same opportunities to develop proper professional communication skills prior to entering the work-force. Baby Boomers and Generation Xers should assist as mentors and be good role models in this regard.

Another aspect, which could cause communication frustration in a legal practice, is the expectation and requirement for communication to be formal and respectful. In this regard, many law firms operate on strict hierarchical structures, where senior legal practitioners seem to always reign above junior legal practitioners and require such due recognition through communication.

To avoid misunderstandings, and improve the flow of communication, practitioners could assist with adopting a firm policy stating, for example, that internal written communication between members of the firm could be informal, but all written communication to clients must be formal (no spelling errors, full words and sentences etcetera). It is also important to consider, and possibly regulate, how and what you communicate on social media, as this could reflect on your personal professionalism and your firm’s position on subjects you comment on.

It is further important to keep in mind that the communication preferences and expectations of the different generations are also likely to apply to clients of different generations. Do you consider what communication style your clients prefer or expect? In addition, consider if aspects of s 35 of the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 could assist by prescribing professional communication with clients on costs and procedures relating to billable matters.

To be professional means to communicate respectfully with clients and colleagues of all generations. Respect is not always conveyed only by what you say, but also by how you say it. Verbal and non-verbal communication should be respectful.

Be on time and prepared

‘The early bird catches the worm’. This idiom generally means that a person who is active early in the morning is likely to be apt for success. It can also mean that the person who arrives early, may get the best opportunity or the prize. Are you an early bird or do you know of any successful professionals who do not rise early in the morning?

Are you late for meetings? Being late is a habit, which can be changed, if you want it to. Top professional legal practitioners are always on time and are always prepared.

Being late for meetings or deadlines all the time could communicate to others that you are disorganised and not on top of things, or that you do not value them. In this regard, especially in western culture, it could be regarded as disrespectful if you are late.

Being on time, every time, on the other hand, is likely to convey a message that you are a trustworthy and competent legal practitioner. Be aware that punctuality may be a strong value of many of your clients and colleagues, which could cause stress and upset your working relationships if not adhered to.

If you have the habit of being late, or are a very time optimistic person, be mindful to always allow sufficient time to prepare. Arrive early at meetings to earn and keep the trust of all your clients and colleagues.

Being busy is not an excuse for being late as everyone is busy. How do you feel when others make you wait?

Keep promises and deliver

A relationship between a legal practitioner and a client is based on trust. It is the role of the professional legal practitioner to inspire trust. This trust implies that the client can reasonably expect a legal practitioner to keep promises made; to deliver work on time and in the manner instructed and agreed. This trust calls for higher performance and legal practitioners to lead with integrity. How do you feel when someone breaks a promise to you?

If you find it hard to follow through on an instruction, or you feel out of your depth, get support to ensure that you can deliver on your undertaking to a client. Involve other people in your legal practice to assist you if it is a big matter and keep the lines of communication open with the client. Always have clarity on the urgency of a matter or deadlines relating to an instruction. Set reminders and put a diary system in place to remind you to ensure that you adhere to deadlines.

In legal practices, workload pressures can sometimes be very unpredictable. In this regard, it may be best to always under-promise and over-deliver. Legal practitioners performing on this principle will build and maintain good, long-standing relationships with clients.

Conclusion

Although the family photo of your law firm may include people from all ages, cultures and generations, the above suggested traits and standards of a professional legal practitioner should not differ. Will professionalism ever get old?

‘Professionalism’ is not exclusively attributed to the professions, such as legal practitioners or doctors. Professionalism relates to the general behaviour of a person in the workplace. However, considering the nature of legal work and the leadership role of legal practitioners in society, professionalism is certainly something, which should be associated with legal practitioners and be part of each professional legal practitioner’s make-up.

Legal practitioners should set the example and standard of professionalism in their legal practices. Legal practices who require assistance with professional development or up-skill of staff members could consider professional coaching or approach their provincial law society regarding its mentorship programme. For further information about mentorship programmes visit www.LSSALEAD.org.za.

Emmie de Kock BLC LLB (cum laude) (UP) is a coach and attorney at LawyerFirst Coaching and Consulting in Centurion.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2018 (September) DR 13.

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