Coaching Solutions: Increase Your Influence

By Lawyer and Executive Business Coach, Irene Leonard

Reprinted with the permission of the Association of Legal Administrators Puget Sound Chapter, April 2008.

By increasing your influence with the decision-maker(s) in your firm, you enhance your position and create benefits for both parties. You were hired for your knowledge, expertise and input to help manage the firm. But there are things you could be doing or managing, if only the partners would relinquish those things to you.

How do you get delegated the executive responsibilities you are capable of? How do you get the executive committee or managing partner to trust your judgment? It isn't possible, in this short article to address all the complexities of those questions, but I hope to shed some light on the matter by identifying steps you can take to increase your influence.

Lawyers have a different orientation than the average person. They are trained to worry about things going wrong and be suspicious. Their work and training are based on past decisions. Precedent, or how something was done before, is the mainstay of the legal profession. If something "isn't broken," they don't like to fiddle with it and possibly make matters worse.

So, you must figure out how to accept and work with that kind of mindset. Don't expect to change it; a lawyer's success is based on this kind of thinking. Additionally, lawyers are overloaded with all that's on their plate; they are dealing with running their practice, keeping their clients happy, negotiating with other lawyers inside and outside of the firm, and marketing activities. These pressures are what give you the opportunity to initiate improvements or changes for them and the firm.

Before you can help people you need to understand what's going on in their minds. Learn about their issues, concerns and needs. Until you have a good idea of what your boss's problem is, you won't be able to come up with a solution that is reasonable for him or her. What do they care about? What's important to them? What are his or her goals and interests? Figure out what your boss wants, then help him or her get there.

Numerous Decision Makers. Law firms consist of many decision-makers. You're likely going to have more than one supervisor or person you need to receive approval from in order to do your job effectively. There is the managing partner, the partners on the executive committee, the partner that has the ear of the managing partner, and the senior partner that has a lot of say. The decision-makers will likely change from year-to-year as your firm changes the managing partner or executive committee periodically. There are many partners who have input into firm management decisions. Getting agreement from all the partners who have input can be difficult.

Your plan to increase your influence should include demonstrating that you are credible, reliable, honest, conscientious, and extremely trustworthy — to all current and future decision making partners.

Trust is earned through time and evidence. Give the partners the time and evidence to learn you can be trusted. Promote yourself to each partner. Let them all know what you have accomplished and how you are doing. Toot your own horn! Don't expect the partners to notice on their own what you do well. Make it easy for them to be aware of how you follow through, how you solve problems, and how you can be trusted. Find out what evidence they need to be able to trust you. Each one will be unique, so approach them differently.

Have other people who your managing partner trusts endorse your worth. See if you can get others, whose opinion your managing partner respects, to say good things about your judgment and value.

Get on your managing partner's calendar regularly. Don't shy away from his/her busy calendar. You need to engage with him or her regularly so that both of you stay aware of the current issues and what others are arising. Be responsible for making the meetings happen. In your regular meetings keep your managing partner informed of how you're progressing towards their goals.

Demonstrate you are capable of additional authority through your actions. Create a pattern of actions that consistently reinforces the idea that you are capable and then deliver on your promises. Give the decision-making partners evidence upon which they can base their trust in you.

Have solutions to problems. Before going to talk to your managing partner about a problem, have suggestions on how to solve the problem.

Be clear in your communication. A good working relationship relies on good communication skills. Avoid misunderstandings and distrust by being clear and direct. Don't be ambiguous or just hint; say what you mean. When one person thinks you mean something and the other thinks you mean something else, that leads to disappointment and mistrust. Confirm everyone understands what is meant. Don't be afraid to ask what you might think are "stupid" questions if you need further clarification.

Talk about your differences. Make a point of discussing difficult or awkward matters; don't assume there's no need to talk about the situation.

Don't tell; ask. Help your managing partner make his/her own decisions rather than telling him/her. Ask directed, open ended, questions intended to increase the decision-maker's level of awareness of the impact of the current way of doing things in order to alter his/her thinking.

Before giving advice make sure your advice is sought. Ask permission to suggest new ways of doing things. Make sure the conversation is two way and that both of you are talking and asking and answering questions. Telling is not effective communication. Ask a lot of questions, be silent and listen to the answers.

A Coaching Example: Increasing Your Authority

George is the managing partner of your midsize firm and you've worked with him for over three years as the firm's executive director. You would like to help him reduce his workload by assuming authority for check signing and review. You also know that George is very concerned about how the firm's funds are handled.

You: George, can we set up some time to talk about a firm management idea I have?

George: How much time to do you need?

You: How about ten minutes on an idea that could help you reduce your administrative work load.

George: That sounds good. How about tomorrow at 10:00 am?

You: That works for me, thanks.

It's the following day at 10:00am and you are in George's office.

You: Good morning, George. I know you're busy so I don't want to take too much of your time. As managing partner you spend a lot of non-billable time approving firm expenses and signing checks. What do you think of the idea of not having to review all the expenses you currently do?

George: Well, I'd be concerned that there'd be mistakes and we'd be paying for things that are unnecessary or costly.

You: How often, with the invoices I give you for review, do you find mistakes or refuse to approve them?

George stops and has an "aha" moment.

George: I see your point; I never question your judgment regarding the checks you give me to sign. What are you suggesting?

You: What do you think of giving me authority to approve and sign all firm checks for up to, say $5,000; and between $5,000 and $10,000 I'd give you the checks to sign without the backup material? Anything over $10,000 would be signed in the usual way and would be discussed beforehand anyway. Of course all expenditures would be in line with the approved budget, and each quarter I could highlight the paid expenses in the quarterly financial reports. What do you think?

George: Offhand I'm comfortable giving you this additional authority. But, let me think about it.

You: What further information can I provide to help you decide?

George: Hmmm. I guess nothing. I just want some more time to think about this.

You: Okay. How about if I check back with you before the next check run to see if you've made your decision?

George: You know what, let's just go with your suggestion for three months and then revisit it.

You: Thank you, George. I appreciate your trust in me. My goal is to do what I can to make things easier for you.

It takes courage and resourcefulness to help move a decision-maker in a new direction. When you show that you really care about the firm and the managing partner and give yourself time to demonstrate your capability and loyalty, you'll achieve greater and greater influence in the decision making of the firm.

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©Irene Leonard. After more than 19 years as a business lawyer, Irene Leonard offers practice development coaching services as an executive business coach. She helps lawyers improve their ability to manage and market. Go to her website www.CoachingForChange.com or contact her at 206-723-9900 for more information.